Choosing an open-source CMS, part 3: Why we use WordPress

WordPress' flexibility and ease of use convinced two organizations to use it as their content management system.

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Carleton University creates over 260 sites

Since adopting WordPress as its blogging platform in 2008, Carleton University -- located in Ottawa, Ontario -- has expanded its use. The CMS now powers 260-plus websites (80% of the university's websites), including 250 standardized departmental sites and more than a dozen custom sites. "We're so embedded with WordPress here that I've had people ask me if it also does blogging," says Danny Brown, manager of Web services.

Most recently, Brown's team, which includes two Web developers, used WordPress to relaunch the university's newsroom, which nontechnical staff use to post stories, photos and videos. The newsroom employs custom post types, a new feature in WordPress 3.0, to associate each news story with a list of experts maintained by the university. "Now when you look at a profile you can see news posts that related to that individual," says Web developer Troy Chaplin.

WordPress now powers Carleton University's 260-plus websites, including the university's newsroom, which nontechnical staff use to post stories, photos and videos.

Other recent projects include an athletics site, which, Brown says, shows that designs can be modified to such an extent that even experts can't tell it's a WordPress site, and a student housing site built using WordPress' support for responsive design that can accommodate mobile, tablet or desktop screens from a single codebase.

"You can't keep building versions for every new device that comes out without killing yourself," Brown says. "We are currently moving the frameworks for all of our WordPress websites into responsive design themes."

The university gradually migrated onto WordPress from the Luminis Content Management Suite (LCMS), which Brown describes as cumbersome and difficult to use. Brown was shocked to find during a visit to the vendor, Sungard, that LCMS had just two developers. "That was an eye-opener for me," he says. WordPress, on the other hand, has a community of thousands of developers.

Brown also tested Drupal for about two months before deciding on WordPress. "In my mind Drupal was the broader, more scalable solution, but it kept coming back to the fact that I couldn't do stuff as easily as I could in WordPress."

And, he says, WordPress had another compelling advantage. "The one benefit WordPress really has over Drupal is that it's so much easier to use on the back end," he says. "The user interface for administration is light-years ahead."

"The one benefit WordPress really has over Drupal is that it's so much easier to use on the back end," says Danny Brown, manager of Web services at Carleton University. "The user interface for administration is light-years ahead."

But that doesn't mean that WordPress was a perfect fit. "The one thing missing from WordPress is multilingual support," Brown says -- a particular concern in Canada, where both English and French are recognized as official languages. Drupal does a better job handling bilingual content, says Web developer Mike Corkum, who came to the university from a large, high-tech firm that used Drupal. "I've done it on both platforms and with Drupal it's much easier. WordPress has ways of handling it, but it's not as fully integrated, and it doesn't have the same level of support that Drupal does."

"We're also not fans of the media-management capabilities," says Brown, adding that "the word on the street is that huge improvements are coming." ("Over the next year the focus is on making multimedia easier to use," says Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress).

On the other hand, WordPress's multisite capabilities have made updating the university's many sites easier. "If I spend a day or two beforehand planning, I can update 200 sites in less than three days," says Web developer Troy Chaplin. He adds that the university expects to move to a setup that will allow simultaneous updates of 250 sites in five minutes.

"What people don't realize is that Drupal and WordPress are pretty similar now -- WordPress has come a long way," Cokum says. When people claim that Drupal is more extensible, he explains, "that's more because Drupal does it on the surface, while WordPress has a back-end codebase that people don't know about. You can create custom taxonomies and hierarchies. People who aren't developers just don't know about that because WordPress doesn't promote it."

Getting management approval to move off LCMS, the university's ERP system -- a commercial product that was part of Sungard's Banner and is now owned by Ellucian -- and onto an open-source CMS wasn't easy at first. "The hardest thing was to get people sold on open source here. They were scared about a lack of support," says Brown.

Using WordPress as a blogging tool got the system in the door, he explains. Then he signed up for commercial support from Automattic to appease user fears -- but never needed it. "There's nothing we haven't been able to solve with the community," he says.

Moving to an open-source system has had another, unexpected benefit. Shortly after making the move to WordPress, Brown received a letter from Sungard stating that it was discontinuing the CMS. "It felt good to know we weren't stuck," he says. "It all comes down to extensibility and community. We feel like we can do anything with the platform."

Don't miss the rest of our series on open-source CMSs: Part 1: Drupal and Part 2: Joomla.

Robert L. Mitchell is a national correspondent for Computerworld. Follow him on Twitter at  @rmitch, or email him at

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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