Setting your CMS sites on the cloud

Today’s web applications face very real challenges to deployment. Websites are incredibly content rich, highly dynamic, and subject to massive swings in load because of anything from content gone viral to the death of a celebrity.

Putting a CMS in the cloud addresses the scalability issue–at least, in theory. The cloud must be optimised for the application to get its full benefit. It doesn’t matter that three servers are ready to catch extra traffic if they’re not configured to do so.

Further, a cloud platform that’s not configured to match the CMS’s particular needs will have to work much harder than it needs to, resulting in higher loads than is really needed to serve the traffic. For example, it makes sense to cache static content: But will the cloud be able to tell the difference between a user who’s signed into the application (and therefore receives dynamic content) and one who isn’t?

But a CMS presents other challenges besides scalability. Managing content online now means a whole lot more than the traditional model of sharing files from a central repository. That’s because websites are no longer standalone entities. They must be able to interoperate with a myriad of other business applications, from ecommerce solutions to CRM databases to reporting and analytics tools.

They’re dynamic and timely. Site owners and social sources share the job of feeding today’s websites and making the content relevant. And relevancy is more important now than ever: The more relevant the content, the greater the site’s impact, and the more likely that visitors will engage with it. Furthermore, social interaction drives communication, and communication is what helps to make a site sticky.

In short: web applications are complex, and managing them can be a full-time job. Traditional hosting options meant that the site owner had to figure out how to manage not only the application, but also the environment–servers, backups, databases and so forth. With Platform as a Service (PaaS), the platforms are specialised, so now site owners can leverage a whole stack that’s preconfigured and expertly managed to best support their applications. The full-time job of handling the web application can then be addressed by someone with full-time attention.

Changes in the CMS landscape

Content management systems were born from such complexities that made traditional web-development techniques obsolete. Enterprise-grade solutions started emerging about ten years ago, with a few well-known proprietary packages prominent in the mix.

But those proprietary solutions lacked some of the flexibility and ability that organisations needed to create truly custom-branded applications with Web 2.0 features. Site owners genuinely required business agility–a quality that proprietary solutions couldn’t provide, as every new feature needed to be hard-coded by a small team of developers. As a result, many disappeared, while the few remaining are facing fierce pressure to adapt to ever-changing requirements.

One of the most future-proof outcomes of this battle has been the emergence of the open-source CMS. Open source applications make it possible to truly enjoy application flexibility and extensibility. If a feature doesn’t exist in other products, there’s a good chance that an enterprising third party has used hooks in the open-source project’s code to implement it. If not, you can always do so yourself.

Drupal is a great example of how open source CMSs make this flexibility a reality. Drupal is free, open-source content management software that powers millions of websites and online applications. Drupal’s success has spawned an enormous business ecosystem, and thousands of pieces of add-on software (“modules”) extend what it can do.

Drupal is uniquely suited as a web content management solution that both addresses all the needs of today’s websites from the most simple to the most complex. Drupal’s architecture enables the needed customisation in the CMS at application level to support today’s site requirements.

And when Drupal applications are deployed in a PaaS environment, where the stack is preconfigured and optimised for Drupal and the details are all expertly managed, websites are designed to succeed.

When all the parts come together as a highly flexible open-source application delivered from the cloud through a PaaS, site and content owners can focus on meeting the needs of their audience.

The take-away

Delivering a great website is not just about the end-user experience. It’s about making the site an accessible platform for its target audience. That means bringing in relevant content from wherever it is — other websites, site members, or (as in the traditional model) from your own staff’s efforts.

It means making your site a cross-channel interface for sharing content of all types across both intranets and extranets in a wave of multi-directional content. But doing so introduces complexities that require attention–attention that can’t be spent watching the servers.

Another aspect of accessibility is uptime. The modern CMS challenges uptime: Events cause traffic to vary and lead to unpredictable resource consumption; the expected mix of authenticated and unauthenticated users changes resource allocation requirements. Today’s websites need to scale vertically and dynamically.

Changes in the CMS landscape have made us all look for new ways of addressing these challenges. Moving a CMS to the cloud provides enhanced scalability; adding PaaS architecture allows for complexity; and using an open-source solution makes it flexible.

Those limitations imposed by proprietary solutions have given rise to open-source CMS solutions that can really help deliver content-rich experiences, support high numbers of authenticated users, and foster social communities.

Jim Shaw is General Manager for Europe. He joined Acquia from Software AG where he was responsible for Telco, Media, Energy & Utilities industries in the UK and Ireland. Prior to Software AG, Jim held senior roles at Progress Software and webMethods. Jim can discuss how decision-makers can deliver unrivalled web experiences through Drupal’s publishing system, the benefits of a fully managed cloud hosting platform and the huge savings it can deliver.