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Things to Consider When Using Movable Type as a CMS

Thord’s post on using WordPress as a CMS got me to thinking about all the times I’ve used Movable Type for that purpose. I use MT for the same reason he uses WP — I know it well enough I can make it do anything I want. It also helps that Six Apart has been steadily adding more CMS features.

So what do you need to know if you’re going to use MT as your CMS? Thord’s article covered a lot of things that should be considered when selecting any CMS software, so I’m going to concentrate on some of the pros, cons, and quirks involved in working with MT.

Pros

  • Templating – MT’s templating system really does let you publish your data in any way you want. Depending on the needs of your website, you can setup MT to generate anything from a simple web page to a complex CSV file to a proprietary feed format. For many things you don’t need a plugin, you just need to know the structure of the final output. One practical example is creating an email newsletter from your recent blog posts. I once created a template that included excerpts from recent blog posts in a format that could be fed directly to sendmail (or some other mail transfer agent) to send to my subscribers. Worked great, and made it easy to reuse my blog content.
  • Custom Fields – Custom fields in MT are very powerful, and easy to create. “Blog entries” can have fields appropriate to the actual content, such as an address field for an event or a rating field for a movie review.
  • Multiple blogs – It’s easy to setup multiple blogs so that each can maintain a different section of a site. You might want one blog for your photo gallery and another for your product catalog, for example. And, both can make use of global templates, so you don’t have to duplicate work.
  • Roles – MT gives you fine-grained access control over what users can do. This allows you to setup a hierarchy of authors, editors, designers, and admins that control different aspects of the site.
  • Custom App – The application itself is built using the same templating system used for blog templates, so you can customize the interface. You could do anything from replacing the header with your client’s logo to completely reskinning the admin to match their site.

Cons

  • Publishing – Movable Type’s concept of publishing — and republishing everything when you make a design change — can be difficult for users. Static publishing does not give you quite the same instant gratification that dynamic publishing does.
  • Plugins – There are a lot of great MT plugins, but the development community is small when compared to Drupal or WordPress. There’s also very few “big feature” plugins. If you’re looking for ecommerce or event calendar plugins, you’re not going to find them.
  • Themes – As with plugins, the variety of MT themes is rather limited.
  • Image uploads – Tying images or other files to a page or post is still complicated. Plugins help, but it could be easier.

Quirks

  • Templating – At this point, the templating system is almost its own programming language, which may put off some designers. And if you do something wrong, the error message can be difficult to interpret.
  • Organizing – Organizing an MT-based site takes some advanced planning. Can you arrange a single blog the way you want with categories and tags, or do you need to use multiple blogs to control the site? If you change your mind later on, it’s not going to be an easy switch.
  • Multiple Domains – It is possible for MT to power multiple domains from a single install, but setting it up properly takes some work. If you’re considering doing this, you might want to read how I got my system working.

Which software you choose for your CMS depends largely on your needs and what you’re familiar with. Personally, when I consider what software to use to run a website, my first question is, “How easy will it be for me to customize this?” In that regard, MT has met my needs for a lot of projects.

Have you ever used MT as a CMS? Tell us about your experience in the comments.


  1. By Mike Robinson posted on September 30, 2008 at 8:42 am
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    At Lift we use Movable Type extensively for client work, it is our CMS of choice. It easily adapts to whatever we need it to do and clients are very happy using it.

    I disagree about the publishing system being a con, it is a pro that gives great flexibilty as to how your site is served to users. With the built-in settings you can have publishing queued to spread the load, you can set specific templates to publish dynamically and even have modules built staticly as their own files then include them in the rest of your templates, meaning if you make a change to your header it is instantly available across your site without republishing everything. The static building means MT has a caching system out of the box, if your DB server goes down the static files still work.

    I agree with all your other points though. Movable Type is definitely quite the player in the CMS market. Great post :)

  2. By Brian posted on September 30, 2008 at 12:00 pm
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    Thanks for posting this, I’m using MT as a CMS and have been running into the same Pros and Cons … I also agree about the current plugin development community, MT should offer SVN hosting like WordPress.org does & more “How To” examples.

    Currently, I’m researching how to enable an “edit this” link when the user is logged into the site & is using static publishing … I’m leaning towards using this technique …
    http://keithdevens.com/weblog/archive/2004/Apr/10/lazyweb.MovableType

  3. By Byrne Reese posted on September 30, 2008 at 12:52 pm
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    Thank you so much for this write up and great feedback! All of your feedback is spot on, and we are listening and making decisions based upon feedback like this – so please, keep it coming!

    A couple thoughts:

    Plugins – Movable Type could definitely use the plugins you describe, but I would also like to think that we are leader in this category as well. Action Streams is an amazing plugin, and while others offer life streaming plugins, none of them give you the amount of control or extensibility that Action Streams does. We were also the first to implement a Fire Eagle plugin for Yahoo’s location aware service, we were the only one demoing Facebook Connect on stage with Zuckerberg @ f8, we were the first to create a beautiful web interface for iPhone users, and so on and so forth. I have also found our developer community to be surprising large, however they also tend to be more modest and more focused on building sites for customers than proselytization.

    Publishing – Movable Type is the only publishing system that supports static, dynamic and background publishing. We default to static publishing because it is the most reliable and stable. If you are a designer and want the gratification of dynamic publishing, then just turn it on. Its right there waiting for you. And then when you are done, flip the switch and make your site as reliable as reliable comes.

    Finally, a word on multi-blog support – this is without a doubt in my mind, one Movable Type’s greatest strengths from a technical perspective. Movable Type was designed to support multiple sites from the day it was incepted. It power to aggregate content (entries, pages, categories, members, tags, anything) across any number of sites, and to do so reliably and quickly is a massive benefit. In this day and age, people don’t have just one web site – they have multiple: a blog or two or three, a web site, forums, etc. Treating each of those as a silo limits your ability to reach the people you care about.

    Thanks again for the great feedback – keep watching us, MT is getting better and better every day. Movable Type 4.0 was just the beginning, Movable Type Pro made Community features the standard, and the next version will be setting news standards for others to follow…

  4. By Heidi Cool posted on September 30, 2008 at 1:40 pm
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    We use Movable Type for our university blogs, but we’ve also used it in situations where a regular CMS would be more appropriate. As one example, our Community Relations department was looking for a way to catalog all of the community outreach programs done at the university. They wanted to make them browsable by the school or departments running them, type of program-4 broad categories, and the community or org they were helping.

    Originally we tried using http://wiki.case.edu but the staff who were inputting the content found it too confusing. So then we set up a blog in which we created categories and subcategories and added the relevant ones as links in the menu. The department found it very easy to add entries without knowing much HTML and http://blog.case.edu/community was the result.

    It worked out quite well. We use it a lot to generate rss feeds and such but this was the most non-bloggy thing we’ve done with it so far.

    Interestingly when Case chose MT as it’s blogging platform, the ability to produce static pages was considered a pro rather than a con. I think it was thought it would be more stable for robots indexing the site and also we wanted to ensure it produced logically named pages rather than weird things with numbers.

  5. By Maarten Schenk posted on October 1, 2008 at 3:38 am
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    Great article (but then again, I’m biased, as I work for Six Apart, the makers of Movable Type).

    As to your point about static/dynamic publishing, did you know Movable Type is capable of dynamic publishing too? All this requires is a small change in the publication settings of your blog, and you are done. You can even have dynamic and non-dynamic sites next to each other in the same installation.

    Also, MT 4.21 has a feature called ‘High Priority Static Publishing’ which helps a lot in the ‘Instant Gratification’ department :-) In summary, the main page and individual blog entries are published immediately, while the rest of the pages are being generated in the background on the server. This gives you the best of both worlds.

  6. By Billy Mabray posted on October 6, 2008 at 7:57 pm
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    First, I have to apologize for not jumping into this conversation earlier — things have been hectic around here, and I took a “fire & forget” approach to this post. Bad blogging, I know.

    Now, about static publishing: Trust me, I know what a great feature this is. It’s one of the things I tout when I talk to clients. I probably should have listed it in both pros & cons, or at least explained the con better. It’s more the perception users have that’s the problem, not the feature itself. Some users have trouble understanding why a widget that is updated on the home page didn’t automatically update on an archive page from 3 years ago.

    I also know dynamic publishing is available, but I greatly prefer static, for all the reasons people have mentioned.

    Thanks to everybody that posted about their own MT CMS setups, and to the 6A folks for clarifying some things I didn’t explain well.

  7. By Nader Ashway posted on October 15, 2008 at 1:15 pm
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    Sorry for this “seeking MT pros” post, but I’m looking for someone familiar with MT in the NYC area. A client of mine has asked me to help with his site, but it’s programmed in MT, and we’re on Mac systems here, which I’m sensing is problematic. For instance, we don’t have Perl or access to SQL. We either use .Net through a service provider, or generate simple HTML out of Dreamweaver. We also do Flash, but again, that’s not helping my client.

    Please send me an e-mail at [email protected] with your contact information, and maybe we can do some work together. Thanks for your help!

  8. By Byrne Reese posted on October 17, 2008 at 10:24 am
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    @Nader – Actually Movable Type runs perfectly fine on Mac OS X, and there are a number of good articles out there showing you how. In fact, most of the developer on the core MT team use Macs, including myself. I find Mac to be an insanely good platform for MT development.

  9. By Kapil Sethi posted on January 21, 2009 at 4:41 am
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    Hi all, excellent article and discussion. I have just started using and appreciating MT . This article clears the fog in my mind.
    Thanks

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