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Learn a Content Management System

computer-and-schoolNever build what you can buy, unless your business is building the item in question.

Never pay for something you can legally get for free.

To this wisdom we can add, don’t build a website from scratch if all you want to do is add content.

A lot of the publishing world on the internet does not build from scratch. They use a framework of their choice. Many different ones are available. They’re commonly referred to as content management systems, each of which is called a CMS. They provide the framework, you supply the content and a format you like. To a large extent, you can make the finished product look any way you want.

Some of the largest sites on the internet use content management systems. With smaller sites you just type and go without the need for a programmer or data base manager, The largest sites often use programmers to modify and tweak their purchased (or sometimes free) CMS and data base managers to fix it if it ever goes down. Few people other than hobbyists and custom programmers (such as me in my former life) would design and write a full system from scratch. Most people would rather concentrate on what to put in the CMS, as opposed to code the site and the content simultaneously.

Next comes the chicken and egg problem: How can you build a site if you don’t know how to use a CMS? How can you learn to use a CMS if you don’t have a site? Then you have to decide which CMS is the one for you. Heaven help you if you pick one out and, after considerable effort and expense, decide it’s not the right one.

What’s a poor future site owner to do??

Enter Microsoft WebMatrix

In Microsoft’s own words: “WebMatrix is a free, lightweight, cloud-connected web development tool. Create, publish, and maintain your website with ease.”

They’re not kidding nor are they exaggerating. WebMatrix is a free tool that you can download from Microsoft. It is a self contained environment for web site development. You can not only build a plain web site or an ASP.Net site with it, you can also use it to download one of several dozen content management systems. WebMatrix will also download and install all the supporting programs, such as PHP, mySQL, or SQL Server, automatically while it is downloading and installing the CMS of your choice. Then it takes you to a configuration screen where you create a user profile in the CMS you selected.

If you make a mistake, just delete the site and all files from within WebMatrix and download it again. If you want two sites, download another instance of your CMS and configure it. If you want many CMS environments to compare and contrast, go ahead. The illustrations below show several popular ones within my WebMatrix environment.

In fact, I occasionally download Advanced Home Server from WordPress as an XML file and import it into a WebMatrix installation of WordPress to experiment with different layouts and ideas. WordPress on WebMatrix performs the import of all graphical content automatically. All I have to do is use the dashboard to set the colors, widgets, theme, main page, and select the right main menu. It takes a couple of minutes to configure. The end result is identical in layout, content, and format to the one on the web. At this time, I’m a WordPress user, not a WordPress programmer. WebMatrix would allow me to learn CMS maintenance programming if I wanted.

Microsoft isn’t being completely altruistic. WebMatrix is a site manager. It allows you to sync up with a Microsoft Azure account and use WebMatrix to maintain your site from your PC. Microsoft Azure is a profit center for Microsoft. You don’t have to link up with Microsoft Azure, but Microsoft hopes you eventually will.

You can download WebMatrix and later select a CMS or two or three from within WebMatrix. Or you can Google something like WebMatrix WordPress and download a small program that will download, install, and configure both WebMatrix and WordPress plus all ancillary files and programs required to build a WordPress environment. You can add additional CMS instances from within WebMatrix later.

Is there a downside?

Not really. Not every CMS that WebMatrix allows you to select will fully load. WebMatrix was apparently linked to older versions in a couple of cases. Either they were no longer available or the security hash values were too old to be recognized so the download and / or install failed. One CMS stopped during the install for no apparent reason. I used WebMatrix to delete the CMS and all related files and downloaded it again. The subsequent install succeeded.

WebMatrix creates and provides you with passwords for databases created during each CMS install. Make sure to copy them into a text file. If you ever need to maintain the database supporting the CMS you just loaded, they will be required and don’t appear to be available elsewhere. If you load more than one instance of a given CMS (for example, you want two or more different WordPress sites), you will get additional database passwords. These passwords are separate and distinct from the user id and password you enter when you create the actual CMS web site during the install process.

Most content management systems are fairly complicated. You will probably have to refer to printed documentation and third party books to get started and build the skill base. Some of the content management systems accessible through WebMatrix are powerful enough to support major corporations and large web sites. Nobody can learn something like that overnight. You will have to spend considerable time looking things up.

Not all popular content management systems are available through WebMatrix. Blogger from Google (available free online only, not through WebMatrix) is intuitive and easy to learn just by poking around. FaceBook is technically a CMS and you learn it by doing. It’s also not available via WebMatrix. Nor is SharePoint.  There are others.

The final step is building an internet site for the world to visit. You may be able to export a practice site from WebMatrix or maybe WebMatrix was just for educational purposes and the real work will happen online. Expect to pay for a website. Prices vary. Some vendors provide specific support for certain content management systems. WordPress is unique in that you can start out for free at WordPress.com and add features later at additional cost. Some of the free content management systems available through WebMatrix may have a cost just to use in the real world. Do your homework.

Many high powered NAS devices include content management systems as featured apps available for download. You may choose to place the final product on one. For learning purposes, a NAS is probably a poor choice to use for a test or practice environment. At this stage of their development, most NAS devices don’t have the power to be as responsive or as flexible  as you would like them to be. For learning and educational purposes, stay with a PC.

WebMatrix Sample Screens

The layout is simple and intuitive.

cms-webmatrix1***

These are my sites for this lesson.

cms-webmatrix2***

Add a new site here.

cms-webmatrix3

***

These are your choices.

cms-webmatrix4***

Work with sites.

cms-webmatrix5***

I selected site WordPress1. To open it, click on the URL in the panel. It will open the site in a browser on your PC.

cms-webmatrix6This concludes the formal instruction about how to use WebMatrix. It obviously provides far more capabilities than those illustrated here. My intention is to get you started with content management systems. Initially, you will spend more time with the one(s) selected than with the WebMatrix framework. Should you decide to use it as a front end for Microsoft Azure, you will become comfortable with more of what it can do.

***

A Few Examples

Configuring WordPress during the initial install.

cms-wordpress1

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Congratulations. You just installed WordPress.

cms-wordpress2

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Joomla! is being installed.

cms-joomla1***

Joomla! has been installed. This is the first screen you see after a successful installation.

cms-joomla2***

Acquia Drupal is being installed.

cms-drupal1***

Acquia Drupal has been installed. This is the first screen you see after a successful installation. You may be prompted to download some updates.

cms-drupal2**

DNN, formerly known as DotNetNuke, is a powerhouse. This is a screen from the installation process.

cms-dnn1***

As you can see, the installation is 100% complete. If it hangs during the install, use WebMatrix to delete the site and all files and try again.

cms-dnn2***

DNN offers to provide you with helpful information.

cms-dnn3***

After you close help screen, you will see the default web site. DNN offers a lot of power.

cms-dnn4###

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