Site Savvy: Invest in Content Mgmt., XML

SAN MATEO (03/13/2000) - Despite this column's name -- Site Savvy -- I've spent little time flexing our savvy muscles. To date, I've revealed many of our mistakes. In recognizing that even worst-case experiences carry a golden foundation, we did make two savvy decisions that will play in our favor: our investments in content management and XML solutions.

If you're running a serious site, content management is a must. It may be like adding a 500-pound gorilla to a simple file-based site, but muscle weight has its payoffs.

There are many content management vendors out there, so choose carefully.

Decide which criteria are most important, such as workflow, archiving, rollback, access control, and replication. Then put your requirements to the test. Serious sites require developers to concurrently edit and test files before they go live. If something goes wrong, at least you can roll back to the version-controlled code. Content management provides version control not only for code, but also for published content. In addition, most content management systems include a flexible repository, which makes it possible to build dynamic content. A complete content management solution can also ease the workflow burden. If content moves through several steps before being published, a workflow tool sure beats e-mailing files around.

We were looking for not only a content management system, but also for a solution that supported XML. We saw through the hype surrounding XML and recognized its true strengths. We knew a key ingredient in our future success would be our ability to separate content, format, and business logic. Our pursuit revealed one vendor and product of choice -- Inso Corp.'s Dynabase. Our decision to use XML was not only forward-thinking, but probably the best technology choice for InfoWorld.com in the long haul.

Sure, HTML is the foundation of the Web as far as a publishing medium. But despite its fame, a lot of meaningful information remains obscured. With XML, meaning can be determined by the data stored in elements, rather than by a less intelligent technique, such as the number of times a word occurs in the document. Unlike HTML, XML is focused on document structure vs. document formatting. XML enhances the information in documents. For example, stories on our site include both a category tag and an audience tag. This data goes along with the story in a very structured way. It is then easy to aggregate meaningful data. For example, from our Home Page you can access both our subject indexes and our sections. Here, we effortlessly aggregate content based on subject.

XML benefits you, our site visitor, but also offers much promise with our content partners. Unfortunately, you need XML understanding on both sides of the equation. If your partner understands your DTD (Document Type Definition), they can interpret your data. Unfortunately, most of our partners still prefer HTML and ASCII, so we're patiently waiting.

XML technology was new when we implemented our solution. We were movers and risk-takers. Whenever technology is "new," understanding levels are low. When that's the case, be sure to plan, review, and exploit all resources available.

Our first implementation of Dynabase only scratches the surface of where we want to be. Today, we're working on our second generation of code, and we're relying on Inso's professional services group. When working with a new and innovative solution, there are always risks. The growing pains were and still often are many, but the rewards are near and more evident every day.

Laura Wonnacott is vice president of InfoWorld.com. Write to her at laura_wonnacott@infoworld.com.

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