Open source powers Florida county's revamped website

Manatee officials say content management system gives county greater flexibility

Officials from Manatee County, Fla., recently revamped an aging website and technology infrastructure to more effectively interact with a growing and diverse population.

The new site,, uses an open-source content management system from Magnolia. The company's CMS Enterprise Edition lets users from various departments create and edit content on an intranet and the website without assistance from the Information Services Department.

The older website was hard to use, with no easy way for content authors and editors to see editing results. As a result, they would rely on ISD to add and edit content and upload files, said Larry Colbert, systems and development manager for Manatee County.

Located on Florida’s west coast, Manatee has about 315,000 residents, but during a typical tourist season that number can increase by as much as 150,000. The information services team is charged with providing accessible services online to a growing population that includes diverse cultural groups and a large number of seniors.

To that end, the IS Department had to revamp an older infrastructure during the recession, when funds were limited. To reduce system development expenses and prevent vendor lock-in, county officials decided to move toward an open-source platform for content management.

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The older website was built around a proprietary content management system based on IBM Lotus Domino. The infrastructure ran on Sun Microsystems Solaris servers, which are considered open source.

ISD has moved to implement an infrastructure that includes Magnolia CMS Enterprise Edition, Tomcat application server, Oracle databases, Red Hat Enterprise Linux on Hewlett-Packard servers and VMware virtualization software.

“Things change so rapidly that there is the general feeling in our groups that you have to be nimble and respond rapidly to emerging” technology," Colbert said. When locked into a proprietary system, Manatee’s IS team has not always been able to respond to new standards and technology, he said.

ISD decided to develop an intranet portal first to test Magnolia in a production environment and train users before launching a public-facing Internet site. The intranet helped the department work out issues and encourage adoption among users in the various county departments.

“It allowed them to probe and touch the editor elements and get use to the notion that behind the Web front end there is a hierarchical meta-structure for organizing information better,” Colbert said.

The beginning of this year, the IS team implemented Magnolia’s CMS Standard Templating Kit. This allowed IS to build templates that pulled data directly from existing application environments such as Oracle, IBM Domino and ESRI’s ArcGIS mapping platform.

ISD is able to use data stored in Domino and stream that legacy information into Magnolia for reuse. Domino has a pretty sophisticated calendar feature that people use to manage things, Colbert said. But now they can use Magnolia to recast information on the Web as needed, which is pretty powerful, he said.

Magnolia is helping with the move toward a service-oriented architecture in which Magnolia serves as the Web front end. .

With the old CMS system, editors couldn’t share documents, said Matthew Arriaga, a software designer with Manatee’s ISD. Magnolia contains a content document management system that allows for the sharing of documents. The documented management system also eliminated the need for ISD to develop mechanisms to work around the older system’s limitations.

Plus, “we developed custom templates so editors could create maps,” Arriaga said.

“We’ve connected databases so users can create their own reports they put on Web pages,” noted Jim Hanson, a systems analyst with ISD. That is what ISD is driving at when the team talks about replacing the front end of applications with Magnolia, he said.

“We visualize down the road when we write an application that the interface will be Magnolia to get data in and out of the database,” Hanson said.

The previous CMS system only had 17 content editors for the entire county because it was so hard to use. Now there are a little over 150 editors and authors from the various departments working on content for the web site, said Hanson.

The only thing ISD is controlling now is the final publishing of content. The next stage is to expand the number of people who have publishing permission, to push that down into the departments, Hanson said.



About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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