There are so many Open Source systems for websites out there, that I thought I would take a moment to explain a bit about when to pick each one, they all have their strengths and weaknesses, pros and cons.  There isn’t one “solves it all” type system, so if someone is telling you that, its because they would rather work with what they know, than what you need…

We’ll talk about a few of the big boys here (WordPress, Joomla and Drupal being the most obvious), and a few of the up-and-coming (ModX and Concrete5) here.  Basically, when selecting an open source system to run your website there are several things to take into consideration:

  1. What does your site need to do for visitors?  What features do you need, like a store, or login system?
  2. Who will manage the site?  How much will ease of use impact them?
  3. What growth can you anticipate?  What features might you want down the road?
  4. How important is custom design and layout?

If you want a site that primarily communicates to visitors, provides information, you are not too concerned with additional features, like a web store, mailing lists, forums or providing custom information to a selected group, then that’s one set of requirements, if you need a site that provides login, user accounts and gives people information customized just for them (like a site that looks up account information for them), that’s a whole other set of needs.  Throw design and layout control into it, and it can be hard to pick the right system.

Picking the wrong system can hamstring your web site functionality, cost you $1000′s and delay you significant calendar time.  As with most of our posts, if you would like some help, just contact us.  We do requirements gathering and analysis, and can help make sure you pick the right system.

Here’s our take on a few different systems – don’t get caught listening to a technophile who loves one particular system and thinks it can be used to solve every problem.  That’s not reality.

WordPress: Fantastic blogging system that’s got a bit of content management to it and literally thousands upon thousands of plugins, themes and extensions that allow it to do more.  At its core, WordPress is designed to do one thing and to do it very well, manage a blog.  Its concepts and design from the ground up is focused on managing posts and communicating about posts.  It does that exceptionally well, and if that’s the core of what you want, posting information in a blog structure, WordPress is your platform, hands down.  If you want something else, like control over page organization, user control to limit access to areas by group, changes in how information is presented, or a site that’s not generally “blog-feeling” then using WordPress to do it can get complicated and feel like a hack.  For ease-of-use in setup, WordPress is a good pick.  They’ve made plugin management and site management simple enough for a novice, but with that ease of use, comes limitations; its very hard to make WordPress do stuff differently.  If you expect to run a site that communicates information, where posts can serve as news updates, you don’t mind that information model, and ease-of-use is a factor, go with WordPress.

Drupal: This is a *great* content management system and its track record is undeniable.  Large scale sites like whitehouse.gov (yep, them), economist.com (yes that one) and fastcompany.com (no?  Ok, so you’re not a business geek) run Drupal.  It performs well, has an excellent cache system that sustains performance on large scale sites, has against 1000′s of extensions and has user-access control that can be find-tuned to allow person A to edit this set of pages, and person B to edit those without touching each other’s work.  But the interface is confusing, the information model is challenging, and you need to understand code and website basics to install themes and extensions.  In short, its a professional’s CMS.  You can have someone set it up for you, but unless you know what model-view-controller (MVC) is and know how to link a CSS file to a PHP template file, you’re likely going to have trouble upgrading, extending or re-skinning it.  Its a favorite or us freelancers who set sites up for clients, because content entry can be easy enough, and its very flexible, powerful and robust.  If you expect to run a large-scale community site, need customizations, user access control, a powerful system that can handle large-scale sites, and you anticipate having good tech skills, go with Drupal.

Joomla: For a long time, Joomla was our “favorite” content management system at Techivity/VorpalJack and with good reason.  Joomla bridges ease-of-use between Drupal and WordPress, provides good site control over things like menus and objects on a page.  The template system is easier to customize than WordPress, the administration interface is more intelligible than Drupal, and there are again 1000′s of extensions and templates out there.  Again, it does have weaknesses.  It has a limited user-access model, so its very hard to control access to content items or other resources on a user or group basis.  The plugin and extension management system, while easier than the one in Drupal, is much harder than the one in WordPress.  Performance-wise it does well enough, but its not tested on the large-scale sites the way Drupal is – but ease-of-use…well, I’ve had clients whose computer skills were very limited managing their sites in Joomla.  If you need a content management system that provides more customized ways to organize and present information that WordPress, is easy enough for the uninitiated, and you are not concerned about controlling information by user, Joomla is a great choice.

Here are a few of the up-and-coming cms and website systems.  As a whole, the issue with this group is that there’s not enough community support yet to have the quality and breadth of extensions:

ModX: A great content-management system with really health engineering design, careful management, and next-gen tools, ModX is a bit confusing (like Drupal) on the admin side unless you code websites, then its a dream come true.  Uses Smarty for its template system, so if you don’t know what that is, you won’t be skinning it.  ModX is a good choice if you’re hacking together a website for a client that is a basic site, but has to be custom organized, and its a great choice as a foundation for acustom system.

Concrete5: Much like ModX but a bit easier to use, Concrete5 is a wonderful cross between open source and commercial.  The core system is free, but you can buy extensions right in the admin interface.  Its easier to use than ModX and Drupal, maybe even easier than Joomla, but its speed and performance comes into question on sites with higher traffic, so be wary of choosing it for a major site.  Again, a great system to hash something together for a client.

Ok, there’s a perspective.  Come talk to us if you want advice.


16 Responses to When to pick WordPress, Drupal, Joomla or another web system?

  • Maggie says:

    Thanks for a great post – very helpful. I think for what we are trying to accomplish we will need Drupal even though there is a lot to learn. (that’s our old site above – the future one will be about social networking for a well defined target audience). One comment was troubling to me – when you said Drupal’s “information model is challenging”. In my experience, if the underlying data model is not fully functional and logical (meaning one fact in one place and the meanings and relationships among facts well defined and manageable), everything gets a lot harder. So can you please elaborate on what you meant by that comment and let us know how visible and understandable Drupal’s database is.

  • Maggie says:

    PS I was looking through your portoflio and looked at the Western folklife one – is this built with Drupal or can you point me to another interactive social networking site built with Drupal? What is your Techivity site built on? thanks.

  • Would it be possible to integrate WordPress and Drupal in one domain? Like WordPress would handle the blog and Drupal do the rest of the site but have both of them “share/integrate” dynamic content?

    Like show the 5 latest blog posts in the Drupal side then also show Drupal content on the WordPress side. I’d like to know what you guys think and any theories. Thanks.

  • vjcoop says:

    They don’t share a back-end database design, so you could have an engineer (one of ours at Techivity if you like) code a custom Drupal or WordPress extension that would achieve this, but the implementation would be as costly as any other custom component. Ultimately, pulling content from one database or another is just PHP code, so that would be achievable, but you would have to implement it custom and maintain the component. I do not believe the design would be particularly difficult, and likely an engineer could adapt an existing “latest 5 posts” for either system to do this.

  • vjcoop says:

    Techivity.com is a wordpress site because the blog format fits what we do — its a perfect example of using the right tool for the right set of requirements. Our client Western Folklife Center uses Joomla and has extensive content in that system, so its unlikely we will migrate to another framework. Take a look at drupal.org for examples — there are some very prominent sites up there. In fact, here is their social networking list http://groups.drupal.org/node/14091

  • vjcoop says:

    Maggie, thanks for your comment. As a technical design, Drupal’s information model is quite good and it follows a one fact, one place type object model for certain, that’s not what I meant. The concepts that show up in the admin interface are challenging to end-users who do not understand how web pages are constructed, so there’s a learning curve involved in Drupal that does not generally exist for WordPress or Joomla. In fact, its been my experience that for customers who have little web dev background, WordPress is a functional choice, so long as they don’t need a lot of extensions. There are extensions that can turn WordPress into anything (like BuddyPress or various store extensions), but they significantly complicate site management, and, at that point, you might as well consider a full content management solution.

  • Hmmm, good points there vjcoop. In your opinion, for a blog site that have a social network component, would it be better to go pure Drupal or a hybrid of WordPress & Drupal. And Buddypress is ungainly (just my opinion). Or is there a better way? I’m just looking for ideas and I’d appreciate it to give me some advice. Thank you.

  • KP says:

    I’d like to know if we can find a plug in for WordPress that lets us do restricted access to multiple directories for sharing content with specific groups. Let us know what you find!

  • vjcoop says:

    Hi there. It really depends on the requirements of your social networking. If you want users to have profiles and information connected to those profiles, there’s a great component for Joomla called Community Builder. If you want to integrate with Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn there’s great plugins for WordPress. If you want individuals to have blogs, well, frankly I haven’t found a good resource for that yet — I’m just helping a client convert an old hosted blog system over to links to wordpress.com. As usual, if you want some perspective and advice, drop me an email or a call, the first conversation is always free, if you get value from talking, then we can work out a relationship.

  • For people who are just started building their own website, It would be advisable to change their websites into wordpress. It’s easier to manage – when you want to add a new category, page or customize your page, point and click is the best way. Since a lot of people are now into blogging, WordPress kind of fits into almost everybody’s website standards. Just saying.

  • vjcoop says:

    Really, that depends on what they want to do. If they are creating a relatively simple site, news, info pages, and so forth, I agree completely. However, I have several clients who need ACL for users and content-based access control. One of them, its their first site “update” — they have used static pages before. The wordpress access-control and multi-user blog functionality required to meet those client’s needs is way more complicated than the Joomla 1.6 or Drupal 7 features that meet their needs. Proper requirements analysis will determine what to use. In most straightforward site projects I agree with you, but there are certain needs that are better met by one of the other options.

  • LJ says:

    For me, WordPress is still the best. To think that it’s very easy to use whether you’re using a blog site or another SEO site. But if your preference is a different technology, the performance still, is based on your preference.

  • vjcoop says:

    I am going to maintain that technology follows needs; if your needs are similar to a blog structure, WordPress absolutely is your best bet. In fact, I use it for this site. However, there are things that run better in Joomla or Drupal, such as user-access levels, custom menus to display categories of articles, in the case of Drupal custom content types and organization, or in Joomla, ease of administration interface. Each system has its strengths, so its important to understand what you want to do with your web management system when you pick which the one into which you are going to invest time, energy and money.

  • Hisham says:

    Many people recommend WordPress because of its ease of use, but honestly, unless you are running a blog or forum site, stay away! It was never designed to be a CMS! Its a blogging management system, even though its extensions try to make it more than what it really is!

    Drupal is really the most experienced CMS of all three, it is arguably the most secure, and its the best at handling HUGE sites. Some of the most reputable sites in the world rely on Drupal (like the author mentions, whitehouse, economist, ..etc). I don’t understand the complaint about it not being user friendly! I think it is the most user friendly of all three!
    Wordpress by comparison was a nightmare, and required alot of manual coding to get it to where Drupal 7 was right out of the box! Maybe this review was written about Drupal 6 – because I did hear it was alot less user-friendly, but my experience using Drupal 7 was quite incredible!

    My recommendation: use Drupal 7, its user interface, ease of use, and extensibility is head and shoulders above all the rest – including the paid systems!

  • vjcoop says:

    Hisham, your points about Drupal are well-made, however, from a coding stand-point, the infrastructure is not as well organized, and it can be more difficult to update and maintain than either WordPress or Joomla. Recently, I’ve had 2 clients choose to leave Drupal behind for this reason. One of its greatest advantages as a CMS was the granularity of the user permissions. Now that Joomla 2.5 and up do the same thing, I’m having clients with less time and budget to invest into maintaining a site choose Joomla. Clients who want a handful of pages and articles, with an interface, use WordPress, clients who want a full-scale cms site use Joomla. Those who need hundreds of articles with heavier security, use Drupal, but more and more, I see that less frequently. For Drupal 8, the team is looking at a core rewrite. I suspect that will change the landscape again. My advice remains the same; small site with updates, wordpress, larger site with content, Joomla, robustness and security, use Drupal.

  • I was roughly in the same place about WP/Joomla/Drupal, having worked with all of these (directly or as a supervisor) over the past 5 years. Then I took a look at recent changes to WP and now lean a lot more in it’s direction. There’s quite a bit of momentum in the WP community, which in turn leads to more innovation. As well as adding more advanced features, while maintaining their ease-of-use roots.

    One of the more intreguing newish features is bbPress. It’s a feature you would generally associate with a more community oriented CMS. I have seen lots of “forums” over the years in many products and tools (was involved in eLearning for many years), so this is more like they got around to doing it, rather than it’s hugely innovative.

    The whole rights and permissions thing is also something WP is getting more up to speed on over the past maybe 8 years. First it was multi-user, then they added more capabilities and a few more roles. Rather than doing a hierarchical org, they put in a “network” of WP sites with a super-admin role. So many ways to skin this cat, yep. Not so much that WP is perfect, more that it’s evolving and taking on more complexity as it is able.

    WP clearly has the largest number of users, which in turn makes it the most attractive for developers, both professional and amateur. I am seeing the # of WP sites growing last year as much as ALL the Joomla sites. It’s pretty much got all the new growth in CMS sites too. This means it’s got the “mind share”, with all the energy that goes with it. In short, WP is going to get better and will be around for years to come.

    In terms of use in a UU congregation’s website, I would also suggest looking at the size of the congregation and the # of likely content updaters. I have often seen like 3-5 users that to actual website changes, which would be for around 100 members. As it’s generally hard to get folks to stick with this over time, and it’s hard to get even committee chairs to do it, what I see is like a group of “webmasters”. (BTW, I also see the same thing in university settings, which is where I work professionally).

    Trying to hand off the updating responsibilities, and not have it fall flat on it’s face, the ease of use and also existing familiarity need to be high on your requirements list. WP does pretty well here and there’s lots of online resources and books for it too. There are some for both Joomla and Drupal too, but less than for WP. Overtime, having existing familiarity will be very compelling (like folks already knowing Word or Excel) and given the current trends WP is going to be your best shot there.

    I am seeing several newsletter plugins for WP (which is new to me), which if this is good stuff would be a big deal. The newsletter is still a reasonably good style of communication, with email, web, and print version needed. Wysija looks like it’s getting a lot of use out there. I would be interested in hearing about experiences here, as having a unified approach to your website and newsletter would be a great benefit.

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