www.RMIUG.org
November 9th, 2004
"Content Management: Wrangling the Beast"

Minutes of the 11-09-04 meeting of the Rocky Mountain Internet Users Group (RMIUG):
"Content Management: Wrangling the Beast"

Josh Zapin, Dan Murray, and Jeff Finkelstein represented the RMIUG executive committee at the meeting. About 50 people attended. Jeremy Kohler recorded the minutes and Josh moderated, thanking the RMIUG sponsors for their support:

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MicroStaff (http://www.microstaff.com) generously provides food and beverages at the meetings. The company provides Creative and Technical Talent for Web, Interactive Media, Marketing Communications, and Software Development projects.

ONEWARE (http://www.ONEWARE.com) is a Colorado-based software company that provides semicustom web-based applications, and is the sponsor of the RMIUG meeting minutes.

NCAR -- for the use of their wonderful facility.

Copy Diva (http://www.copydiva.com) provides the audio visual equipment.

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Josh said the 2005 meeting schedule has been determined, but he also welcomes any suggestions for future meetings, because nothing is set in stone. Send suggestions to josh@rmiug.org. Here are the expected meeting dates: Jan 11, March 8, May 10, July 12, Sep 13, Nov 8. All are normal 2nd Tuesday schedule, odd-numbered months.

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INTRODUCTION

ONLINE SECURITY: LET'S BE CAREFUL OUT THERE

If the Internet is the medium of the Information Age, then content is the matter. According to Netcraft there are more than 55 million websites in existence. Although there are no hard statistics, some estimate that the number of web pages is well into the hundreds of billions. Google, even with its incredible breadth and reach, only catalogues four eight billion of those pages. It's amazing that we ever find anything!

Since the dawn of the Internet, many netizens have wrestled with the challenge of making content more digestible, manageable, and ultimately, usable. Companies such as Vignette, Documentum, and of course Microsoft, have spent millions inventing systems to help organizations get a handle on their information. According to IDC, worldwide enterprise content management (ECM) will grow at a double-digit pace from $2.7 billion in 2003 to $3.8 billion by 2007.

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Speakers:

DAVE TAYLOR is the founder of Intuitive Systems (http://www.intuitive.com), an executive management and communications consultancy. He's been involved with the Internet for over 25 years, including a stint as a research scientist at HP's R&D Labs and another as senior editor of Advanced Systems magazine. He's written 16 books including the best-selling "Wicked Cool Shell Scripts," "Creating Cool Web Sites," and "Learning Unix for Mac OS X." He has extensive experience as an entrepreneur, including having founded four startups in the last ten years. Dave will talk about RSS (Really Simple Syndication, a content publishing "dialect" of XML) and weblog (or blog) technology and how they are used in content management. His weblogs include:
The Intuitive Life (www.intuitive.com/blog),
Ask Dave Taylor! ( www.askdavetaylor.com),
Real Life Debt (www.real-life-debt.com/blog),
Booktalk (booktalk.intuitive.com),
Free Web Money (www.free-web-money.com),
and Attachment Parenting (www.APparenting.com).

ROBERT A. DICKINSON (rob@rsane.com) is Product Architect at Xaffire and founder of Reasonably Sane Inc. (www.rsane.com). Trained as both a software engineer and writer, Rob has always been fascinated by automated authoring and publishing. Having led technical development of collaborative information systems for several local startups, including CorpMed.com and Achieve.com, Rob founded Reasonably Sane in 2001 to advance multi-author, multi-format publishing. Rob will speak about the role of document compilers, including Wiki engines and the RSane Compiler, in managing large structured publications with many contributors.

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MEETING MINUTES

An informal survey of the attendees revealed that most have managed a website and maintained its content, but hardly anyone had used a content management system.

DAVE TAYLOR

I'm intrigued--it looks like the majority of you manage websites without any tools. I wonder how often you manage to add content. If you're keeping a website up to date, how do you survive?

It's easy enough to build a website, but when you have a flow of data like a page per day, you don't have the tools to get it in there. What happens when you have to make global changes to all of the pages, like when your logo or copyright date changes? Many people use Cascading Style Sheets to manage some of these changes, and although CSS helps, it's not the answer.

Years ago people used template-based page builders (like Geocities) to manage content. But it didn't work very well because you had to force everyone into a simple, restrictive template. And it led to web pages that became static and rarely updated. Google and other search engines hate static pages, and puts them way at the bottom. Go to the last page of a Google search result and you'll find stuff that hasn't been updated in eons.

---Weblogs---

But what if we had a template language where you can actually focus on the content. That's what weblogs are.

With weblog tools, you just type text into a box and click submit, and the blog does all the work. This lets you just focus on the text itself. When you click submit, all pages, indexes, referring links, site maps, etc get updated automatically without you having to do any HTML. You can even set it up to automatically notify other sites that there is a new posting.

A Wiki uses a similar system, except it's just a website that everyone can edit. Weblogs are more under control, only allowing people to add content to a predetermined format; usually you can't change things like navigation in a weblog.

I can also build a web page and leave it unpublished until I'm ready. All I have to do is change a setting from "draft" to "publish".

You can manage multiple websites from a single blog interface program, like MoveableType, which can be very sophisticated. By learning and using a weblog management tool, I have so simplified my life, converting hours-long jobs to a few seconds.

Some people just add a weblog as an extension of a static site, but I think its better to manage your entire site with the weblog tool. Of course, getting the templates set up can be a large task, but there are default templates out there that you can use as is.

You can also translate your existing web page into a template. With a little work, you can pour your existing HTML into a weblog template.

If you want to track changes in a weblog, you usually have to set it up to save the old pages each time you update. Wikis are much better at versioning.

If you use a blog, your hosting service has to support it. Some hosting services even offer their own blog services.

---Really Simple Syndication (RSS)---

There's a bit of controversy over what RSS actually stands for. One commonly accepted version is "Really Simple Syndication." When you use RSS, the servers do all the work so I don't have to worry about my PC.

NewsGator (newsgator.com) for Windows and Web, and NetNewsWire for Mac (ranchero.com) are good RSS readers., but my favorite is NewsGator Online, which offers a Web-based interface to let me read all of my RSS feeds in one place.

With an RSS reader, I can know what's happening on other blogs without actually visiting the sites. Many blogs and even nonblogs have RSS feeds, so the reader lets me monitor all of them in one place. It shows me what's new--it's the personalized newspaper that has finally come into reality. I can aggregate everything I'm interested in on one page. Typically, you get a sentence or two as a teaser, with a link to the whole article.

Feel free to email me with questions about the wonderful world of RSS.

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ROB DICKINSON

Document Compilers: Empowering Collaborative publishing through WYSIWYM (What You See is What You Mean)

Most of the information we encounter (online or offline) is heavily structured. There are two authoring approaches to creating this structured information:

  1. WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) is "visual typesetting," and is lightly automated with a word processor. It turns our PCs into very intelligent good typewriters.
  2. WYSIWYM (What You See Is What You Mean) authoring by contrast compiles unformatted source content into the final docs., By highly automating the formatting process, so that you authors focus on writing, not formatting.

Collaborative projects with multiple authors presents many challenges including:
-asset distribution and tracking: where are all the versions?
-consistent formatting
-consistent voice/terminology
-overlapping work boundaries
-review and approval processes

Regardless of which authoring approach you use, these challenges persist and get worse with more people and larger documents.

--Content Management Systems--

Traditional CMSs like Vignette or Documentum are essentially 'WYSIWYG for workgroupsers,' extending the visual typesetting model by offering:
-management and search various for docs in native formats
-online authoring tools
-auto format conversion
-change tracking
-workflow and notification
-security & rights management

These CMSs are good at handling a large "swarm" of different documents within an enterprise.. But they don't do as well in cases where many people need to work simultaneously on one integrated document.

--WYSIWYM: Document Compilers--

These "What You See Is What You Mean" approach requires a "document compiler" program. The compiler Like other compilers, it takes raw content from authors and does all the work to produce a finished document.

Authors can choose set formatting policy, like a template through compiler options, so they can focus on writing and accuracy and quality. The compiler can dynamically transform the doc as it's being built--content can be filtered, mined, and indexed to personalize the content.

Many challenges with collaborative environments (multiple authors) have to do with consistency. For this reason, document compilers are better at handling single, large, integrated documents rather than a swarm of different documents (thatwhere CMSs are good forexcel).

The compiler receives a set of source files and then digests them to produce multiple output formats: websites, PDFs, or text. A server can manage a collection of shared source files, shared among multiple authors, and the compiler generates the multiple outputs.

Compilers don't require you to learn any software.

TeX, DocBook, Wiki, and the RSane Compiler are all document compilers. When it comes to doc compilers, "It's all about the source syntax," which is what the authors have to use to create the content.

TeX: (tug.org)
Based on aAn early typesetting system,. It's popular in science and academia because it's good with formulas. TeX Ooutputs DVI files that get converted to PDF, HTML, etc. The source format is tagged text, with back slashes and brackets. A pretty cryptic format, but good in the scientific world.

DocBook (docbook.org)
This is just an XML standard, and it uses XSLT and or XSL-FO for output. It was originally an interchange format to create docs portable between different press systems. Now it outputs PDF, HTML, and text. The source syntax is XML, which is complicated. Generally you'll need a professional tech writer to produce it.

Wiki
Originally these were just editable websites, which come in many open-source flavors. It Wikis allowed a bunch of people to brainstorm online. More recently, Wikis are being used for it's more structured collaborative documentation. But it only outputs to web. On the plus side, the source syntax is very simple. No tags or code to learn, just a few simple conventions. I can just write content, more or less.

RSane Compiler
RSane combines ideas from all of the above, and is more relevant geared to creating use your in own custom applications. It's a Jjava compiler used in server applications, with multiple outputs (web, print, text), versioning, and good for large structured documents. The source syntax is also simple, so people are able to zero into the content. It includes a management area where you can check in and out the source docs. And if you want you can do it right in your browser like a Wiki. It lets you increase your delivery opportunities while dealing with collaborative creation.

Wikis and RSane (soon, at least) will track and save source versionsfile history. RSane uses passwords to protects the docs . from unauthorized changes, but visitors can browse published content without registering first.

We needed wanted to publish a 400-page book four times a year with different updated content each time: RSane allows usis designed to do support that kind of effort. Free downloads are available at RSane.com.

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QUESTIONS FOR THE PANEL

Q: Who is RSANE targeted to?
A: Rob: We're looking at several vertical opportunities, but huge large regulatory (government) docs areis a good target market. We're generally targeting any big documents that represent an ongoing investment of work, where multiple authors are involved.

Q:What about managing image libraries?
A: Rob/Dave: We don't know.

Q: MoveableType is easy to use, but how does it perform in search engines?
A: Dave: Google loves blogs. Search engines like things that change a lot. When you add content or tweak the templates, the entire site gets rebuilt and the engines love it.
A: Rob: Separating content from presentation is a very good thing, you just have to pick the right tool to do it.

Q: Do blogs use another language?
A: Dave: Yes, but the output to the web is always HTML--the languages are server includes. MoveableType is very easy, but it is a very rich and sophisticated environment with lots to do. There is some work, but once you set up the templates, you never have to worry about it again.

Q: If all the stuff is on the server, I have to use a browser and a connection, with no backups, it gets hard to track stuff.

A: Dave: There are some apps that let you work locally and have the app do all the server interaction. Email me for suggestions.
A: Rob: With many CMSs, those are common problems. With doc compilers like RSane, you can work either online or offline, whatever is more convenient. The server application still provides the main repository, but you shouldn't be chained to it..

Q: ISPsEnterprises don't host wiki and blog servers, do they?
A: Rob/Dave: No, generally they don't. (A few commercial ventures do.)

Q: When will RSS come of age, where I can use it to distribute info from my enterprise, like sending out tech bulletins?
A: Dave: It's coming of age right now--CNN, New York Times, Wall Street Journal use it. Currently there are wars about what format it will take. It's aggressively evolving right now. We are just at the beginning of the adoption curve. Within 2-3 years most pages will have RSS feeds on them, I predict. Even cell phones might have RSS. It saves you space because it's all on the servers.
A: Rob: Adoption always depends on who's reading it and what tools they are using. Maybe RSS is appropriate for your audience. It does make a nice alternative to email and avoids spam.

Q: What about selling to other kinds of people, like the corporate world?
A: Dave: Corporate culture might find it threatening, where anyone can add content. Companies don't understand this. There is an inherent lag in adoption of new technologies by corporations. You'll need champions in the company to push alternatives.
A: Rob: With adoption of open source, suddenly corporations turned to linux because the license is free. In particular, Oopen source makes adoption easier. Since evaluating or even adopting open tools doesn't require royalty payments, it's easier to get rolling in corporate environments. The big-dollar CMSs are an entirely different story.

Q: Do you know any good open source content management apps?
Audience input: RSane, Slight Project, openCMS, Twiki, Xoops.

Q: How about social networking? Or when you have a very large group?
A: Rob: It helps to have some strong leadership with some centralized control. There's no magic technical bullet. This lesson comes directly from the open source community--pick any large project, and there's a relatively small group of folks at the core that are coordinating and leading the effort.
A: Dave: I'm in the decentralized camp. On social networking, blogs can bring together a community around a topic of interest, and topical searches hit my site because other similar topic sites are static. There are models out there that let you create all kinds of online communities. And you can have enough control to facilitate a little.

Q: Can MoveableType coexist with existing webpages, or do you have to convert it all?
A: Dave: Coexistence is ok, you can have old material sit in the blog statically and only reformat some of it. Or just do a little work at a time to convert it--you don't have to do it all at once. You'll have to rename pages, but Apachy Apache can do name mapping (more work) on the server if you don't want old links from outside to break.

Q: What about RSS to make government info and public meetings more accessible?
A: Dave: I imagine the city of Boulder could have an RSS feed that aggregates all city info (from multiple RSS feeds) into one place. That's a great idea for RSS.

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RMIUG (http://www.rmiug.org/) appreciates the sponsorship of
MicroStaff (www.microstaff.com), ONEWARE (http://www.ONEWARE.com), and Copy Diva (http://www.copydiva.com).

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