Looking to Unite Sites

The complexity of Vignette Corp.'s popular Content Suite can be daunting, but that complexity allows the suite to do things other content management applications simply can't do.

The complexity of Vignette Corp.s popular Content Suite can be daunting, but that complexity allows the suite to do things other content management applications simply cant do. Indeed, Content Suites customization capabilities were a key factor behind Otis Elevator Co.s decision to implement Version 4.2.

Otis, the worlds largest manufacturer of elevators, escalators and moving walkways, needed a standardized, central system that would allow its more than 50 international companies to create sites that met their needs but also looked and felt similar. Otis also had to deal with the fact that most of these international businesses didnt have in-house Web development expertise.

Otis sites provide information on the company and its products, including full manufacturing databases. Otis partners and customers accessing the sites can purchase products and perform other transactions.

At Otis headquarters in Farmington, Conn., eWeek Labs met with Dave Wood, director of e-business development; Chuck Richards, IT operations manager, e-business; Russ Mitchell, deployment manager, e-operations; and Renee Machado, programmer/systems analyst. We discussed why Otis chose Vignette, the challenges behind implementing the system, the creation and management of templates in the system, and the ways in which content contributors use the system.

With the help of PricewaterhouseCoopers, Otis evaluated systems from several vendors, including Eprise Corp. and Interwoven Inc. One of Otis requirements immediately knocked these systems out of the competition: They lacked support for double-byte characters, which are necessary for handling text in Asian and other Eastern languages. "Vignette was the only one that [supported] the double-byte characters that we needed for international support," Richards said.

Otis started rolling out Content Suite in January last year. The first step for Otis—which should be the first step for any organization rolling out a content management system—was to sit down with content authors to determine how they add content, what they needed in their sites and how they would work in the Vignette system. In other words, let the content authors tell you how they work; dont tell the content authors how to work.

"We learned from the content authors and changed the look and feel of the content management application to fit how they actually worked," Richards said. eWeek Labs believes this approach is especially important with Vignette, which is not known for its adaptability once deployed.

Authors for Otis many sites include engineers, product managers, sales and marketing staff, communications personnel, and human resources staff. All content approvers are management level, although overall management is centralized. "One person serves as a global CM manager, who handles tasks such as approving users who need access to the CMA," Mitchell said. Although this model works for Otis, it would not be efficient for sites requiring constant content changes and lots of contributors.

Machado, who adds content for the Otis sites for the United States and Canada and also approves content additions, said Content Suite has enabled greater productivity. "To do the amount of work we do now in the old system would have been impossible," she said.

However, Machado, an experienced HTML coder and Webmaster of the original Otis.com site, is sometimes frustrated by the restrictions of Content Suite. "Sometimes, you just need to make a small change or want to do something creative," she said, and Content Suite restricts these kinds of ad hoc changes.

Otis development staff built a base-line site comprising the best attributes of all the companys sites. The developers built a generic Otis template so the sites would look the same. However, each company has its own Web site within that structure.

Each site may have different Web content or application needs because of the functions of the site or because of cultural needs. The setup of the Otis central site makes it possible to address each companys needs.

One aspect of Content Suite (especially older versions) that has been problematic for many organizations is its reliance on the Tcl scripting language, rather than on more common Web scripting languages. However, this was not a drawback for Otis because Richards is an experienced Tcl developer.

To create the HTML site design, Otis worked with Sonalysts Inc., of Waterford, Conn. "Good Tcl developers arent [necessarily] good HTML developers and visa versa," Richards said. "[Content Suite is] easy to code, but to make it look good takes some work."

Otis is well past the original design phase of its site templates and has deep knowledge of building templates on a code level, so it hasnt used Vignettes new tool (available in Content Suite 6.0) for graphically designing templates. "Wed be taking a step backward to use that tool at this point," Richards said. eWeek Labs has seen the design tool only in demonstrations, but the fact that the tool is offered at all is significant and will likely save companies money and time.

The Otis site now comprises about 400 templates, and the company reuses much of their template code. Richards said it took about three months to do the original template coding.

"When we originally deployed [Content Suite], we brought in the content authors from around the world and gave them 2 hours of training. They then had sites up in about three days," Richards said.

This timetable is pretty good for a content management system, but its important to keep in mind that each implementation was essentially a reuse of the main Otis site rather than a from-scratch deployment.

Like the other companies profiled in this Labs On-Site, Otis has made little or no use of some core content management features. They dont have a complex workflow for content submission, for example, using only a single- or sometimes dual-approver model. Otis also doesnt use the check-in/ check-out, versioning or content rollback features that are available in Vignettes Content Suite.