In this exclusive TheContentWrangler.com interview, Sitecore’s Rolf Kraus, discusses content management tools, approaches, and challenges and details how his firm helps organizations leverage Microsoft .NET to solve complex content issues. Learn why a code content management system is not a good choice for managing content components and discover why Rolf says Microsoft Sharepoint might not be the right choice either.

TCW: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today, Rolf. Our audience may not be familiar with you and your firm. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your role at Sitecore?

ROLF: Scott, thanks for inviting me here today.  I am responsible for new business development and channel partner relationships at Sitecore for the Western region.  I came to Sitecore after managing a web development company and providing content management consulting services.

TCW: What types of products does Sitecore offer and what types of challenges are your typical customers trying to solve?

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ROLF: Sitecore develops and markets web content management software that is used by mid-to-large size organizations.  Since our customers typically have made a strategic commitment to .NET, they are looking for a content management solution that leverages .NET while providing enterprise-class flexibility, scalability and features.

TCW: Many of our readers come from the technical documentation and training space. One of the common questions that are asked by members of this audience is “Why can’t I just use software I already own and configure it to manage and deliver content?” These folks wonder why they can’t use a source code management system to manage web and print content. After all, they point out, content is content is content (it’s all a bunch of 0s and 1s) so why does the type of content management tool matter. Our question for you today is why can’t you just use a code management tool to manage content? What are the problems with such an approach?

ROLF: There is no question that people have traditionally used source code management facilities like CVS or VSS to manage vast libraries of files successfully.  There are several issues with this approach as we look forward, one—you might want to see information in a format other than its original format, two—you may want to mix-and-match and reuse information components to create new documents, and three—you may want editorial environments, workflow, versioning, roll-back and security functionality that are well-integrated and easily used by both technical and non-technical users.

Looking at the first issue—we all recognize document (or page-based) management systems can manage XML documents, thereby allowing us to later transform them as needed.  The issue comes in the delivery side of the equation—if someone wants the PDF, printer-friendly or PDA version of the content, you are left holding the bag to deliver it.  Contemporary CMS solutions, like Sitecore, not only provide management, but also content delivery mechanisms that automate the transformation and formatting of requested documents.

As for the second issue—most ‘final’ documents, whether a homepage, product brochure, or news paper page, are composites of many individual content components of various types.  Again, manually assembling content for the ‘final’ document is a tedious chore that can be automated with a CMS solution like Sitecore.

To enable greater flexibility, content must be managed at a much finer granularity than just at a document level.  A contemporary CMS solution will provide that fine-grain management of content, while providing the ability to aggregate content and build documents on-demand for a variety of output formats.

To the third point—most code or file management systems were not designed for the non-technical user in mind.  Contemporary CMS solutions provide a wide-variety of functionality—like editorial environments, versioning, multi-language support, workflow and so on—in user-friendly web-based environments that cater to both the technical and non-technical users.

TCW: That’s some good information. So, what you’re saying is that in order to get the maximum benefit, you have to select the right tool for the job. Which begs the next question: Why can’t we just use Microsoft SharePoint? Many of us already own it and now that Microsoft supports XML, shouldn’t we be able to just use the tools already on our PCs to manage and deliver content? If not, why not?

ROLF: SharePoint is a great tool—I have been using it for years and find that when used for its original intent, as an ad-hoc document management and collaboration portal, it never disappoints.

Sharepoint has traditionally provided a way for people to collaborate on documents, projects and structured information. Sharepoint is a step ahead of the “code management” approach we discussed earlier, as it provides an integrated environment to manage, workflow, and secure documents within a well-integrated web-based interface.

Yes, it can manage your XML documents, but provides no native method of delivery—there is the issue of transforming those documents into a target format—XHTML, PDF, RSS, etc.—that people are requesting.

With the release of Sharepoint 2007, Microsoft has positioned the product for web content management.  This has yet to be fully realized by the product, as web developers are finding a significant chasm between the product’s actual capabilities and its CMS intent.  We find customers that integrate Sharepoint with a CMS, like Sitecore, have the greatest success getting their web projects off the ground. 

TCW: There’s some confusion in the technical publications space about the various types of content management systems. A common question relates to the “appropriateness” of one type of content management system over another. But, before we start down this path, it might be important to define what a content management system is (and is not) and what is it designed to do at its most basic level?

ROLF: Content management categories are well defined by analysts and pundits—ECM, DAM, WCMS and so on.  Most people first encounter “content management” as web content management—a way to organize, manage and deliver content for their website.

Web content management has evolved over the last ten years.  First generation players were good at managing HTML documents and providing a way to edit, organize and workflow these files.

Second generation players provided some separation between content, through the use of page definition templates, but still manage content as HTML.  Behaviors, like workflow, versioning and security also occur at the document level.

Third generation players truly separate content from presentation—providing the ability to reuse content anywhere in any format.  These systems apply workflow, versioning and security on the content item, regardless of where it will be rendered.  In addition, these systems provide robust deliver mechanisms to personalize and format the content on-demand.

TCW: Okay, so what type of content management solutions does Sitecore provide? Can you give us some examples of the types of problems you are helping your clients to solve? Feel free to drop names. ☺

ROLF: Sitecore is a third-generation web content management system.  Focused on a strict separation of content and presentation, Sitecore enables reuse of content, while providing complete flexibility in its output format.

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Sitecore’s clients often have flexibility and scalability requirements cannot be met by incumbent or competitive solutions.  An example is Dollar Thrifty Auto Group, who you know as Dollar Rent-a-car and Thrifty Car Rental at every airport.  They needed greater flexibility in delivering personalized content, while reducing the development effort involved delivering it.  Their incumbent CMS required them to manage over eight separate home page templates—they were able to cut that down to a single template that was dynamically-assembled with Sitecore.

Many of our clients integrate Sitecore with other systems to retrieve and publish information, or authenticate extranet users on their sites. WebTrends and Netgear for instance, authenticate extranet visitors against their Salesforce.com accounts—these are quick integrations for developers.

TCW: There’s a lot of buzz in the industry about Web 2.0. How do you see these technologies changing the way we create, manage, and deliver content? And, can you give us some examples?

ROLF: Some of the key aspects of Web 2.0 that affect content management are folksonomies, user-generated content, and richer (interactive) web experiences.

Empowering content users to apply their domain knowledge to content via folksonomies—or user-driven meta tags—is big step forward for organizations.  With most knowledge still bound-up within individuals, older, highly structured taxonomies cannot support the vernacular organization and naming models used by day-to-day users of the information.

User-generated content, whether by blogs, wikis or page reviews, empower users to communicate to others in a natural manner.  This really created a challenge for content managers, particularly in high-structured organizations, where all content must be approved before being published—this runs counter to how blogs and wikis are intended to work.

I am seeing many customers use newer technologies, like AJAX, with Sitecore to create richer experiences for web visitors. The challenge is knowing when to apply these technologies to improve the user experience—to help web visitors fulfill their needs more naturally, with less time and effort.

TCW: Tech pubs departments are some of the first to embrace content management and XML technologies. But, they are not very experienced tool shoppers. Can you provide any advice for less experienced content management systems shoppers?

ROLF: First time CMS shoppers must educate themselves—what is CMS, what are the differences, what problems will they solve?  There are several resources that help newcomers establish a “lay of the land” quickly to accelerate their investigations.

The first step in education is to understand what you don’t yet know and to understand what questions you should be asking.  There are several great resources that I recommend to people, one is CMS Watch, which provides both product evaluations and implementation guidelines.  The other resource is Step Two Designs, an Australian firm, who provides a toolkit to capture internal requirements—a key aspect of the process.

Once you understand your requirements, key considerations and vendor differences, put your knowledge to work and attend a CMS conference.  Some of the best conferences are the Gilbane events, where in place, you’ll have the opportunity to speak to a dozen or more CMS vendors and will walk away with a much better understanding of your options.

TCW: As you can imagine, we get a lot of questions from readers of TheContentWrangler.com. One of the most common questions we hear is “What about Open Source?” Can’t Open Source content management systems do the same things as their commercial counterparts? And, when is Open Source NOT a good option?

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ROLF: Open Source can have its place within some organizations—but it’s not for everyone.  With commercial products there are some basic expectations that must be fulfilled by the vendor to stay competitive—support, training and consistent upgrades. 

Many Open Source CMS technologies are not packaged for easy consumption—they require a significant commitment on the part of the user organization.  Without an available support team or training staff, most Open Source initiatives will require you to take responsibility for educating and supporting yourself.

Product upgrades, which are delivered as collaborative effort within Open Source initiatives, may not be what you need or when you need it.  Unlike most “customer-driven” features delivered within commercial products, the Open Source customers deliver their own features, as often they are developers of the product itself.

Open Source solutions are may be particularly appealing to organizations who are highly self-reliant, have strong technical skills and aren’t afraid of potential risks.

TCW: There also seems to be some confusion around the cost of open source. Some people seem to fancy it because they believe it’s free. What is the cost of open source software? Is it really free? And, what does free mean?

ROLF: Yes, Open Source software is free to download, install and use.  The cost is rarely the software itself, but all the activities that surround the software: support, training, implementation and potential opportunity costs.

With Open Source software you have complete freedom, and most, if not all of the responsibility for the software eventually rests with the organization that is using it—that means any the costs are also their responsibility.

Organizations must consider their total-cost-of-ownership and potential opportunity costs.  If it takes months longer to implement the functionality required—what cost is associated with that time and effort?  Would it have been better spent in another way, on another product?

I recommend that organizations focus on the best-fit products and company that addresses their needs—whether commercial or Open Source, realize that you will pay.

TCW: Are there any questions you wish we would have asked you? If so, now is your time to ask them (and answer them) yourself.

ROLF: Sure—so what makes Sitecore different than the other CMS vendors?

For one thing, Sitecore is committed to Microsoft’s .NET framework—our entire platform is based on this technology.  It has enabled us to deliver new functionality more quickly than competitors on other technology platforms.

In addition, Sitecore leverages W3C technologies and standards—like XML, XSLT, CSS and XHTML—to eliminate proprietary approaches to content organization and presentation definition.

Our contemporary CMS best-practices approach combined with .NET technologies and industry standards delivers a solution that enables our customers to deliver complex, enterprise-class solutions faster and more cost-effectively than with competitive solutions.

TCW: Thanks for taking the time to help our readers better understand web content management systems and learn a little bit about Sitecore.

ROLF: Scott, thank for this opportunity—it’s been great. If any of your readers would like additional information, they can send me an email or contact our customer service department via telephone at +1 415 444 0600.