Exploring Ways to Manage Content
Although casual observers might think not much is going on in the space program now, devotees know there is constant change, news and innovation in space exploration, from Mars probes to space stations to discussion of future manned exploration. Fittingly, Space.com Inc. needed to make sure its Web site was dynamic and flexible enough to allow it to cover space-related news in the most appropriate way.
Unlike some sites that start on their own and then move to a content management server, Space.com launched in July 1999 with a content management system in place. When it launched, the site was running FutureTense Inc.s Internet Publishing System, which is now Open Market Inc.s Content Server.
Space.com is an independent company that also publishes The Space News, a weekly space newspaper. At its headquarters in Midtown Manhattan, Space.com Chief Technology Officer Mark Cutsforth told eWeek Labs how Space.com decided to re-evaluate its content management system in the spring of last year because of issues he had with the FutureTense system. "The system had been implemented in a hurry by previous managers," Cutsforth said.
Space.com looked at several new systems, including those from Vignette Corp. and Interwoven Inc., before opting to go with the latest version of the Open Market application. "We did a full industry review," Cutsforth said. "Despite the fact that we were an Open Market customer, we still found it to be the best option for us."
"Performance on both the user and the development sides was crucial," he said, as was Open Market Content Server 3.5s reliance on standard tools such as Java 2 Enterprise Edition.
Space.com moved directly from FutureTense Internet Publishing System 1.0 to Open Market Content Server 3.5. "It was essentially like starting over from scratch," Cutsforth said.
Converting to the new Content Server version involved porting lots of data while maintaining the site. Jason Hoch, Space.coms director of site operations, said, "We had to get all of our existing data over from the old system, and it had to look exactly as it did before."
Space.com ran for some time on a dual publishing system, with both the old and new content management applications. "It really helped users learn how to adapt to the new system," Hoch said. This duplication was transparent to site visitors.
It took three people to upgrade to the new system, essentially two developers and Hoch handling the site and technology requirements. They launched the new version in April.
One of the major strengths in Open Market Content Server is its template design, which gives Space.com the flexibility to be creative with the site on the fly, especially for building new template design packages for features such as special reports. "A new package can be done in day," Hoch said.
Cutsforth said, "The system lets us quickly redesign the site with new templates." He said this is also useful for non-news reasons, such as dealing with high traffic spikes.
The template features also give Space.com a lot of flexibility in the types of ads it can run and the types of stories ads run in, Hoch said.
Cutsforth said, "We can do some incredible things in a hurry. Generating a new template is a very simple process."
The content management system also comes in handy for tasks outside the site, such as managing and creating newsletters. "We can build a new newsletter in about 5 minutes," Hoch said. "Were proud that we have so much flexibility."
Most of the content on the site comes out as static HTML, Cutsforth said. "Supporting dynamic content would be more problematic," he said, because of the performance and integration issues associated with generating content dynamically.
Another benefit of static HTML is that the links generated by the system are short and describe the actual contentsomething not all content management systems can claim. "Having sensible URLs can be a big issue for tasks like when we add links to our newsletters," Hoch said.
Although Space.com is the type of news site that content management workflow was built for, Hoch said the staff uses the workflow in the system sparingly. Most of the traditional editorial workflow between writers and editors is handled before content goes into the system, he added.
"We do have some formal workflow measures in the system, but we can also bypass them for special breaking news events, such as late shuttle launches," he said.
Another feature not getting heavy use is check-in/check-out. "We used to use check-in/check-out more," Hoch said. "But things are now more or less preassigned, and we dont find cases of people stepping on each others toes."
Content enters the system through editors, who write or edit the stories in Microsoft Corp. Word and then save them as HTML so they can be posted into the system, according to Hoch. The editors use an internal network drive for storing the stories, and all editing is done before it enters the content management system.
One of the main publishers and managers of content through the Open Market system is Space.com Managing Editor Anthony Duignan- Cabrera. "Some free-lancers will send content through the CM, but mostly we do everything in Word first," Duignan-Cabrera said. "People coming in from the traditional print media dont have the inclination to learn HTML."
Another benefit is that content can be sent through e-mail. "Were not strangled by the fact that someone has a crappy phone line connection," Duignan-Cabrera said.
The system is very easy to learn and has made it much easier to use images and other art elements in stories, he said. "Everything can be done quickly."
Duignan-Cabrera added that Space.com never runs into a situation where the editorial side asks for a feature on the site and the technical side says no. "We ask the technical people for something, and they can always quickly do it," he said.
Space.com uses staging and development servers to handle content before it hits the live site, Hoch said. "Our development and staging servers host the content and templates. We can then test on the staging server," and approved content is pushed to the live server.
"Its just one more thing we can do to check the integrity of the content and code before it goes live," Hoch said.
The Open Market system not only manages standard content but also handles the many images on Space.com, as well as other media.
Another benefit of this system is the ease with which editors can find relevant images while posting a story, Hoch said. "Were constantly pulling images from our extensive database for use in articles," he said.
Occasionally, Space.com staff have difficulty finding specific content within the content server. "The experience can be good or bad," Hoch said. "Sometimes, you look for something you know is there, but for some reason, you just cant find it."