Pagoda CMS Notes
posted by brian at 08:11 PM
If you were at PyCon 2007 or read Gary's blog or read the TurboGears mailing list, you may have seen Pagoda CMS mentioned. Pagoda is an open source content management system I've been working on with Chris and Ian. It's built on TurboGears and is focused on being simple yet extensible. We put up an introductory screencast at pagodacms.org that we hurriedly made the night before PyCon.
We've tried a bunch of content management systems, both open source and commercial, and developed for small shops, big corporations, government organizations, and of course Case itself. There are features that are consistently implemented poorly, hard to understand, or simply missing. Pagoda is a result of the observations we've made of how content management systems are really used in a production setting.
These are just a few of the notes and design goals we've been using along the way.
Don't overengineer it
Somewhere along the line someone decided that if you're going to make a content management system, you have to build everything on top of a dozen layers of abstraction. Some pretend that there's no difference between static page content (like a blog entry) and dynamically generated content (like a news feed). Some pretend that building complex workflows that are exactly suited to the way your organization is structured is a common need (we've found that people already have real-life workflows and rarely do they want this duplicated in a CMS).
Experience has shown us that such complexity is rarely needed. We don't try to fit every feature into a "plugin" structure or an "actions" framework. We've streamlined the features based on our experience, and hopefully kept it fun to hack on (when you do need something extra) by avoiding meaningless abstractions.
Do one thing really, really well
A lot of content management systems try to do everything involved in running a web site. Database management, email management, form design, you name it. We don't want a content management system that takes over every aspect of making a web site. We've made conscious decisions to leave a lot of features out. In addition to the above (which can all be found in Zope + Plone, for example), we've spent a lot of time deciding how far certain features should reach and what should be left up to the webmaster.
One example is theme switching. When you're first building a web site, being able to download prepackaged themes might be nice. But for production sites, this simply does not happen. Imagine the Cleveland Museum of Natural History or a university department downloading new themes and swapping them out. Not gonna happen. Instead this is limiting, because prepackaged themes require predetermined markup. As a result, most Plone sites look the same and are structured the same way. They have the little tree on the left and those tiny tabs and a logo above that. And then you're scared to modify too much CSS because there's a bunch already dedicated to making those tabs pixel-perfect. We don't have a default theme or even default markup. Markup and design are meant for programmers and web designers, let's not pretend otherwise.
Use simple terminology
As Jeffrey Veen mentioned in Making A Better CMS, stop it with the jargon already! "Mambots", "archetypes", "portlets", and I'll admit it, I'm not even a fan of the term "widgets". We've tried to use understandable terminology throughout Pagoda and not extend failed analogies.
One example where we created a feature and spent some effort on choosing a name is Placeholders. This is a feature that we've actually needed on production sites but haven't found in other content management systems. The idea is that there is text that appears on multiple pages within the content, and it would be nice to only have to change in one place so we don't have to hunt down every page in the future. Phone numbers, store hours, admission prices, and press contact information are some examples. These aren't template variables because they have nothing to do with templates (to the user) and aren't arbitrary Python objects, and they're not code snippets because they have nothing to do with code. They're simply content placeholders. Here's the mockup we used while implementing this feature:
Borrow features that work
We've had a lot of inspiration along the way and used it to solve real problems. For example, if you need to have a downloadable file on your web site, a lot of content management systems will force you to ask "where do I put this?" and once you've decided on a place, require you to find your way there in the filesystem. We decided on pages having Attachments. Most downloads are associated with a particular page, so just upload them to that page and that will determine their location. We used 37signal's Campfire for inspiration, where people can upload files to the room they're in and they appear as attachments.
Reduce the number of clicks
We're lucky enough to have started developing after AJAX became popular. The "Web 2.0" buzzword might be annoying, but this is really something we can use to make content management quicker and easier. Navigation and messing around with page options won't require dozens of clicks and page reloads anymore. Instead of having to retrofit our software to take advantage of AJAX, we can design with it in mind.
Built a content management system, not a new framework
Similar to doing one thing really well, we're not building a web framework. That's what TurboGears is for. People can still use their existing TurboGears controllers, models, and templates. We're using SQLAlchemy for Pagoda's models and Genshi for the templates. To install Pagoda for your existing TurboGears project, you'll just have to subclass from PagodaController instead of the default RootController, so Pagoda can dispatch requests to the appropriate page.
So hopefully it sounds like an interesting project. We're still hacking on the core and hope to release a demo before the end of March, when we'll also invite people to help out and find weak spots. We have some mailing lists on Google Groups for discussion: pagoda-talk (general discussion), pagoda-coders (core development), and pagoda-announcements (for releases and other notices). For the first few releases we'll also make announcements on the TurboGears list.