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Web content management: converging code and content.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that as technology continues to mature, the Internet is likely to become an increasingly integral part of critical business processes and operations. In many cases, a company's intranet, extranet, or Internet initiatives already serve as the primary vehicle for delivering critical information to customers, partners, employees, and investors.

However, this new means of interfacing with users, which can be so effective in terms of building and maintaining loyalty, also comes with a price. Information delivered via a website must not only be relevant to the user, it must also be accurate and delivered in a timely manner. And although website development and content-management functions have traditionally fallen under the umbrella of marketing or communications, as Web initiatives become more complex, this responsibility is rapidly shifting to IT groups.

The number of horror stories resulting from malfunctioning applications or incorrectly posted information is astounding. Recently, the U.S. Defense Information System Agency unintentionally allowed Internet surfers to view and place orders for computers, networks, cell phones, software, and other technology used by the military. The U.K. Shopping City's website displayed personal customer information such as shoppers' names, email, and postal addresses, gender, and age group. Embarrassing incidents such as these are often caused by a simple application error.

Although it's easy to wonder how this could happen, the answer is simple. When an organization creates and maintains business applications designed to facilitate delivery of products and services through a traditional, brick-and-mortar business model, a process is generally put in place to ensure the quality and accuracy of that application, and the business logic in the program is usually validated. As a result, there are numerous "checkpoints" established to make sure that any changes, such as updates on application accessibility or product and pricing information, will be reviewed and approved in a pre-determined manner and timeframe.

However, consider how this translates to a real-time, online environment--a sales order placed via a website, for example. The site must offer an order entry function to allow customers to enter the orders themselves. As a result, the traditional front-office sales order system has to be moved to the Web. In addition, the back-end inventory system must be tapped so that the product descriptions and on-hand quantities can be presented online as well. To support this new online environment, and to transition these legacy enterprise business applications to the Web, extensive amounts of new application code must be created and then properly maintained.

Businesses face this situation every day, and it points to the evolution of websites-- from yesterday's brochure-ware to today's more dynamic, application-driven sites. And with more and more companies moving back- and front-office applications onto the Web, and with Web services that will extend applications beyond the corporate firewall already on the horizon, the opportunity for error has increased exponentially. The overall design and content of a website is now as critical as the underlying application code, and it is essential for Web designers, content contributers and third-party information brokers, to actively collaborate with application developers to ensure the site's quality, reliability, and accuracy.

Experts in the areas of software configuration management (SCM) and Web content management (WCM) have long predicted a time where code and content would begin to converge. But that concept is no longer a far-off vision of the future--it's happening today.

Separate Entitles

Businesses have already recognized the value of WCM solutions that enable them to rapidly design, create, deploy and manage website content. WCM solutions have proved to be extremely useful in alleviating some of the bottlenecks imposed by having a centralized resource (e.g. the webmaster) for content creation and deployment, and increasing "time to Web" advantages. They have also served to mitigate some of the financial and legal risks involved with publishing incorrect content through task management and workflow process tools. Therefore, it is no surprise that META Group recently released a METAspectrum(SM) market evaluation in which it estimates that the Web content management market will evolve to reach $10 billion by 2004.

However, until recently WCM has been seen as an entirely separate entity from application development. In fact, companies often employ a Web team, which primarily includes business users, to handle site design, Web presentation design, content creation, content updates, usage analysis, and so forth, while a separate programming team is responsible for application design, coding, testing, defect correction, etc. As a result, people with different levels of technical skills and from a wide range of organizations and departments-- which may span any number of locations across the globe-- have been dividing up the responsibility of building and maintaining websites.

Given their differing skill sets and disparate locations, these groups have grown accustomed to relying on a wide assortment of tools and one-off processes to coordinate various activities and complete assigned tasks, but they have had little visibility into the overall process.

While this ad hoc practice of building and managing Web applications and content may have been acceptable in the time of brochure-ware, it simply does not mesh well with a fast-paced world of dynamic and complex websites. Even one instance of publishing incorrect pricing information can translate into loss of sales momentum and revenues. Within a very short period of time--it could be just 10 minutes--how many potential customers will hit a site before a company even knows about the error? A well-known airline recently learned first hand just how much damage this sort of issue can cause, in terms of short-term financial repercussions and a lasting public relations nightmare, when it mistakenly listed airfares online at a price substantially lower than they actually were.

A business climate fraught with tight resources, increased security concerns and growing pressure to be first-to-market has only served to exacerbate this situation. With the line between code and content now blurred, companies must view SCM and WCM not as separate entities, but as closely intertwined components of one, unified Web development lifecycle.

An Integrated Approach

The benefits of SCM and WCM solutions that can integrate seamlessly are many. Streamlined management of code and content enables businesses to experience an immediate increase in return on existing investments and infrastructure, and more specifically, allows them to:

* Boost the overall quality and consistency of Web applications and content.

* Reduce operational costs through improved workflow.

* Eliminate problems resulting from version conflicts and overlapping development efforts.

* Improve the accessibility of applications, enabling sites to run faster.

* Greatly reduce opportunities for content error.

* Dramatically improve security in the areas of access, definition, creation, and modification.

* Support disconnected usage, mobile and wireless applications.

Searching for Solutions

The high visibility and the business value that websites deliver has raised the stakes for adopting sound internal practices and productive tools to streamline the Web development lifecycle. The convergence of code and content, and the inherent need to control, present, and manage Web resources, is dramatically altering the landscape for SCM and WCM solutions. As the market continues to evolve, organizations should look toward established vendors that offer easily integrated solutions built with a clear understanding of market dynamics.

However, in most cases, companies already have SCM tools in place, and in some instances, they may also have some level of WCM solution. Therefore, it is essential to evaluate these systems to make sure they are functioning well together. A tightly integrated code and content management system should be able to cover the entire Web development lifecycle from creation to deployment, meeting the requirements of Internet, intranet and extranet initiatives with control, quality, and speed. It should capture, secure, and track enterprise content, and enable joint code and content deployment with workflow control.

Moreover, it is important to remember that today's Web applications may touch on any number of backend systems, including those associated with finance, ERP and CRM. As a result, companies should check to make sure that their WCM solution is scalable, adheres to open standards and supports heterogeneous environments.

In addition, a WCM solution, when integrated with an SCM system, should allow tight collaboration between all of the groups of people responsible for a company's online presence. Given that the work knowledge and production tool sets used by content contributors are vastly different from those of application developers it is essential for a solution to take this into consideration. Content contributors and developers alike should be able to work in a comfortable format toward a mutual goal of timely, accurate, and reliable sites. To this same end, with the number of mobile workers on the rise, and more companies boasting a global presence, a solution should also support a wide range of browsers, operating systems, servers, and RDBMS connectivity.

To succeed in a Web-centric business climate, companies can ill afford to neglect any part of their websites--neither the highly visible, user-facing content nor the underlying code. Code and content have converged and companies must make sure their SCM and WCM infrastructure is up to the challenge.

Stephen King is senior vice president and general manager at Merant (Hillsboro, Ore.)
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Article Details
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Author:King, Stephen
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Article Type:Industry Overview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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