I recently made the case for using the open-source WordPress CMS instead of a custom hand-rolled CMS to a manager. What follows is the email (with names and companies changed) that was sent. I thought that it might be useful to other people who are trying to convince their organization to take the leap to WordPress, Drupal, or any other open-source CMS. It’s also worth noting that I’m on very friendly terms with my manager, hence the informality and straight-forwardness. As for the Django references, we develop most of our data-driven sites in Python/Django.
As you already know, I completely loathe the [Custom] CMS. My recent and ongoing experiences with the [Client] website have only served to reinforce these feelings. Unbridled hate rarely serves any useful purpose though, so I’ve decided to see what I can do to make the problem better. My way of doing that is by making a case for using WordPress on large, non-trivial, content driven websites. As of right now WordPress has been lasso’d into small-size websites at [Company], but I believe it is capable of far more then that. What follows is a breakdown of all the feedback, questions, and concerns that were raised while I was gathering information. I’ve provided solutions to almost all of the problems, and its worth noting that some of the problems with WordPress are not unique to WordPress. I also want to make it clear that I’m not trying to get rid of the [Custom] CMS, especially since we have a lot of clients with a lot of money invested in it. I’m simply making a case for using WordPress on large sites instead of the [Custom] CMS.
Content Creation / Management
For as long as I can remember, [Other Manager] always raised a red flag with WordPress because it was inferior in content creation to the CMS. In vanilla form this is arguably true, however WordPress has an amazing community of plugin developers surrounding it who have solved all of these problems.
- Pods – I have a love-hate relationship with pods. I like that they provide nearly infinite flexibility to the content creator, but that comes with the price of nearly infinite complexity. While I disagree with giving the content-creator that much control over how content is displayed, I can see the usefulness of it. To solve that problem, there are many visual composition plugins available for WordPress. My favorite is Visual Composer (http://vc.wpbakery.com/). Extending Visual Composer (akin to adding “module functions”) is as simple as adding a hook in your WordPress widget.
- Categories / Taxonomies for Media (assets) – WordPress has brilliant support for categories and custom taxonomies out of the box. Beyond that, it also has support for tags. One thing that doesn’t work out of the box is media categories. Luckily there is a large handful of community plugins that easily solve this problem for us.
- Media – The media library in WordPress is extremely slick, ajax-y (asynchronous uploads, etc), and easily extendable. Multiple thumbnails and image sizes are generated out of the box. Adding new image sizes is easy too.
- Videos – WordPress supports videos out of the box. Adding Youtube/Hulu/Vimeo videos is as easy as adding one of the numerous plugins. There are even plugins out there that interface with FFMPEG to get you a nice selection of thumbnails to choose from.
- Form Builder – The new hotness of [Custom] CMS is Form Builder. WordPress has a large amount of awesome form builders available, and most of them are cheap and come with support. Gravity Forms(http://www.gravityforms.com) is my favorite. Although Ninja forms is looking like a valid alternative.
- User Management – WordPress comes with excellent user management out of the box. It has 4 default roles (Administrator, Editor, Contributor, Subscriber), but no way to change what those roles are capable of. They generally have pretty sane defaults, but sometimes you want to tweak things. User Role Editor(http://wordpress.org/plugins/user-role-editor) provides an easy way to modify group and user permissions. If you need to add new roles, there are plugins for that as well.
- Content Deployment – We’ve often struggled with how to deploy new content to sites. Generally you don’t want to create the content on live, because it will need to be hidden. There is a straight ballin’ plugin for WordPress called Ramp(http://crowdfavorite.com/wordpress/ramp/) that solves this problem. Seriously, check this out. It will blow your mind.
I have a handful of notes that don’t fit well into Content Creation / Management or Development, so here we go.
- Update Cycle – WordPress has a release cycle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WordPress#Releases). It has feature releases, bug releases, and HOLY HELL THATS A BIG RELEASE releases. WordPress updates are vetted by an insanely large community of professional developers who catch bugs/regressions and fix them before release.
- CMS “Upgrades” – Somehow its become normal and accepted at [Company] that a CMS Upgrade costs north of $25,000, takes a month, and almost always ends up braking some part of the site that wasn’t broken before. WordPress upgrades take 10 seconds, don’t break changes, and have deprecation warnings just in case you’re using a method/hook that won’t be supported in a future release. We might make some money off of [Custom] CMS upgrades, but my experience has been that they end up costing more time/effort/good will then they are worth. Having a one-click upgrade option allows us to keep our sites secure, up to date, and gets us back to making things awesome.
- Community – WordPress.org has 1,998 base themes that can be used and extended via theme inheritance. It also has over 26,000 plugins that extend WordPress’ functionality. This doesn’t account for the numerous premium plugins that are available throughout the internet. Help is always just a Google search away. If that doesn’t work, Stack Overflow most certainly will. Having the backing of a community while you are developing is invaluable. Did I mention the WordPress IRC channel?
- Documentation – One of the most frustrating things about the [Custom] CMS isn’t the lack of code documentation, but the lack of code usage documentation. WordPress has a ludicrous amount of documentation on pretty much anything you can think of. It stays up to date with best practices and is updated for every release. If the WordPress.org documentation isn’t good enough, the source code is very well documented. If the source doesn’t suit your fancy, there is probably a blogger that wrote about your problem.
- Hiring – Hiring is hard in this economic climate. Selling a PHP developer to come work for [Company] with [Custom] CMS is even harder. If the person is a WordPress expert, all of that domain knowledge stagnates and becomes useless here. It also makes the on-boarding process take 2-4 months. And even then, they still aren’t all that useful in the [Custom] CMS. Having WordPress as a core tool allows us to hire people who are already experts. The on-boarding becomes a few weeks, and everyone is happy. It also makes it a lot less fatal if we lose a developer, because it’s possible to hire another one that already has all the domain knowledge.
- Focus – Using WordPress is similar to using Django in that it gets out of your way at lets you focus on what’s important: making awesome stuff. You don’t have to piddle around with random regressions, bugs, or odds and ends. Those are already worked out for you. You get to focus on making custom functionality the best you can. Not having to mess around with bugs and regressions allows you to focus on quality instead of just “getting it done”.
- Security – WordPress can be a security nightmare. With an install footprint of over 60 million websites (as of 2012), everybody is trying to hack it. Luckily most plugin authors and the WordPress security team are always right on top of it. There is a plugin called WP Security Scan(http://wordpress.org/plugins/wp-security-scan/) that takes care of making sure all the directories have the proper permissions, and in general gives good advice to harden your WordPress installation. Taking 10 minutes a week to update all your WordPress sites is also the best way to prevent security issues.
- Who? – WordPress.com has a nice list of notable WordPress users (http://en.wordpress.com/notable-users/). The list includes, CNN, NYTimes, Forbes, Reuters, Sony, Jay-Z, Rolling Stones, GM, and others.
- Cost – We keep upgrading the CMS. It needs it, but it cost lots of money. WordPress and the open-source community keep things up-to-date for us, so the cost is nil.
In the past, a lot of misinformation has been spread about WordPress and how developing with it is awful. A lot of that comes from lack of knowledge, so I thought I’d address a lot of the pain points that people have experienced.
- Plugin Creation – [Other developer] brought up the point that WordPress plugins are created in a procedural fashion, and are therefore a huge PITA to work with. As it turns out, the correct way to make WordPress plugins is via OOP. This NetTuts tutorial covers most of the basics (http://net.tutsplus.com/tutorials/wordpress/create-wordpress-plugins-with-oop-techniques/).
- Content Deployment – WordPress hard-codes URLs into the database content. This is obviously a bad idea for many reasons. To rectify, if you move content from one server to another, you just need to execute 3 sql queries as part of your deployment. Usage of Ramp (mentioned above) solves this issue for 99% of use cases.
- Versioning – WordPress shouldn’t be versioned. Any plugin you install from WordPress.org should not be versioned. If you are making a custom theme, that should get it’s own repository (hey, look at Stash and all it’s repos we can create). If you are making a custom plugin, that should also get it’s own repo. This promotes re-usability and good coding practices. Deployment of theme/plugin updates is as easy as checking out the latest version or git-pulling.
- Deployment – Initial deployment of a WordPress site is just like moving a staging site to the live server for the [Custom] CMS. After that, deploying code updates to custom plugins and themes is just a git pull/checkout of a tag. This could easily be streamlined with the use of Fabric or Capistrano.
- Modules / Custom Post Types – The [Custom] CMS has a pretty nice way of creating basic custom content via modules and the scaffolding. WordPress has custom post types, and several different plugins for creating them on the fly. My current favorite is Advanced Custom Fields (http://www.advancedcustomfields.com/)
- Theme Inheritance – As mentioned before, WordPress has LOTS of themes. Nearly any one of them can be used as a base theme, saving front-enders a ton of time getting base CSS and templates set up.
- ORM – WordPress has a weak ORM. Hopefully you can use WordPress’ features enough that you can write minimal SQL. On the bright side, you’ll have some nicely optimized queries This is also why you should use the right tool for the job. If you have to interact with the database so much that you need an ORM, you should probably be using a framework.
- Testing – WordPress core is fully unit and integration tested. The majority of premium plugins and popular plugins are tested as well. Plugins can easily be tested using PHPUnit, and their interfaces can be tested using Behat.
- Developing as a Team – WIth a sane Git strategy (custom plugins and themes versioned only) developing as a team is a non-issue. In the past, having the whole project under version control caused serious issues when there was more then one developer.
- Database Migrations – Just as with [Custom] CMS, if you have complex migration that destroys data you’ll need to handle the migration yourself. http://codex.wordpress.org/Creating_Tables_with_Plugins has more info. If the migration isn’t destructive, you can use the wp_delta method to handle it for you.
- Environment Abstraction – WordPress does a great job of not caring about what version of PHP you’re on. So long as you are PHP >= 5.2.4 and MySQL >= 5.0.0, you’re all set
I know we’ve talked in the past about vetting a Django CMS, but I think that using WordPress is the best choice. We already have people who know it, the front-enders know how to develop for it, the community is massive, and learning it is easy. I look forward to talking with you about this.