SBS prepares for Q1 Drupal CMS rollout

Broadcaster to begin rolling out Drupal-based sites early next year

Australia's multilingual broadcaster is preparing a staged rollout of Drupal across its online properties in early 2013. The roll out of the open source content management system (CMS) will be the culmination of a process that began in 2011 and represents a complete rearchitecture of SBS's online systems.

"It's been something I've wanted to do for a long time but I only got the resourcing and the budget to do it last year," said Matt Costain, the broadcaster's technical director for online and emerging platforms.

Drupal will replace a custom CMS at SBS. "Like a lot of content-focussed organisations that have got an in-house technical capability there was a bespoke, custom content management system written by the team here, and there were a number of iterations of that over the past 12 years or so," Costain said.

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"The one that's been in use for the last five years was a system called Redback, which was written by the team here."

The current SBS CMS developed in a "reactive and ad hoc manner", Costain said: As parts of the organisation embarked on new projects, features would be added to the system to match project requirements.

"The team is very small here; we didn't have the capability or the scope to really put something through a proper product management cycle and it was more critical to get the content up, at least from an audience-facing perspective," Costain said.

As a result, the platform evolved organically, "and things like scalability, maintenance, extensibility completely went out the window". At a fast-paced and event-driven environment like SBS, it was hard for Costain's team to find time to invest in bringing the custom system to a point where it made rapid innovation or quick product deployment non-trivial tasks.

Despite that, over the last four years SBS has increased its online audience massively and added new video products. "The next thing to do was go, 'Okay let's tear all this back down and start again.' And do it properly," Costain said.

Costain said the broadcaster considered a number of CMSes. One important consideration was the language used; his team consists primarily of developers with a strong PHP background and switching from LAMP "would have been a fairly drastic decision". Non-PHP-based CMSes were still considered however.

Along with Drupal, eZ Publish, MODx, and SilverStripe were shortlisted candidates. Drupal won out for a number of reasons. One was the availability of support in Australia from Drupal development shops and Acquia; another was the strength of the developer community around the platform.

The open source nature of Drupal is also part of the CMS's appeal. Costain said he believes that the return on investment from using Drupal will be higher than it would be with other options. "At the end of the day it appeared to meet all the requirements that we had, as well as came in on budget," he said.

Australian Drupal development shop PreviousNext was an implementation partner for the project. Costain said that SBS leveraged PreviousNext's experience in Drupal deployment as well as knowledge around certain specific areas, such as metadata schemas and theming.

The deployment will increase the speed with which SBS can deploy new features online. In the past, Costain said, "Pinterest or G+ comes out and all of the site owners want Pinterest or Google Plus integration on their site. [With the current platform] we would have to go and basically update every single site's templates, which are all written differently in different iterations within the same CMS.

"So being able to add features globally through the base [Drupal] distribution that we've got and just make them available to all of the sites and essentially just change the theming slightly was a very strong point there."

Under the new setup, Drupal will be used for content entry and site management, but content for SBS's online network will be stored in a content repository.

"Content created within Drupal gets pushed into the content repository, at which point it's completely available to any of the websites that sit on top of it. We've wrapped all that up with APIs and essentially what it does is it de-silos our content.

"Previously, let's say it was World Cup time and you wanted to do some cross-promotion of content across the SBS network, and maybe on the Italian football team's page you wanted to link across to some Italian recipes on the food site, there was no way to do that without actually custom coding for those cases."

Now content is "being democractised," Costain said.

The rollout itself will be a fairly large job for Costain's team. "There's around about 70 or 80 live websites in the SBS network. A lot of them are cookie cutter TV [show] type sites, but there are about 12 large sites which would traditionally take around three months to build out. We're hoping that with the use of Drupal we'll get that time down significantly."

The new deployment will aid in introducing consistency across the broadcaster's digital properties, in terms of design, user experience and information architecture. "Along with the first site that goes out live there will be some new network components that are common across the SBS network, which will then eventually start feeding into new ways for users to come in and discover the content," Costain said.

The biggest challenge during the Drupal project has been managing development of the new CMS while still maintaining SBS's existing system. There's also been a process of "Drupalising" the development team. "Drupal is significantly different to the way we were building out things before, which was a fairly standard model-view-controller, MVC, framework approach to building out websites with our own custom libraries and frameworks." Costain also faces the prospect of training SBS's content creators and editors in the new system.

The Drupal rollout will begin in Q1 2013.

Matt Costain will be speaking at Sydney DrupalCon 2013, for which IDG Communications is the official media partner.

Rohan Pearce is the editor of Techworld Australia and Computerworld Australia. Contact him at rohan_pearce at idg.com.au.

Follow Rohan on Twitter: @rohan_p

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