So You Want To Pick A CMS?

Want to get a room full of developers all riled up? Ask them about their preferred content management system (CMS) - just don’t be surprised if a keyboard comes flying.

What’s the big deal? A lot, as it turns out - especially when it comes to comparing the main two players in the game: Drupal and WordPress. For most users, the two are a lot alike - but for those looking to get in the weeds, the differences run strong once you get past the label on the surface.

giphy 13

Some things are (more or less) the same in WordPress & in Drupal

Although it seems to be a favorite hobby among developers, comparing and contrasting Drupal and WordPress won’t always yield a clean difference.

Open Source All Day

Both WordPress and Drupal are licensed under the GPL v2+, which means that both platforms are completely free. Both projects consider plugins and themes developed for their platform to be derivative works, which means that all plugins and themes for WordPress and Drupal should also be licensed under the GPL v2+.

WordPress and Drupal are also both supported by their own 501(3)(c) organizations. These organizations – the WordPress Foundation and Drupal Association, respectively – promote community engagement, and help ensure that the platforms will exist for years to come.

Wordpress Definitely Has Its Strengths...

WordPress wins big in the numbers game. From its humble roots as a blogging platform, WordPress has grown into a publishing powerhouse that runs nearly 30% of all websites and almost 60% of all CMS sites.

Of course, popular things are not always great, but with numbers like that, there must be something worthwhile to this whole WordPress thing.

Blogs

WordPress started out as a blogging platform, and to this day it remains one of the cleanest, easiest to use blogging platforms.

Although the choice of a platform for your website is often portrayed as an “all-or-nothing” deal, where your entire site must be on a single platform, this doesn’t have to be the case. Because of its strength as a blogging platform, many of the largest companies in the world -- including Facebook, Microsoft, and Target -- use WordPress to power their blogs, while relying on more specialized technologies for other portions of their app or site.

Simple Marketing Sites

WordPress has a huge and very active community of designers and developers that produce attractive themes that you can drop right into your WordPress installation. For small marketing sites with limited content, these pre-built themes can provide a budget-friendly way to create a beautiful site.

Simple E-Commerce Sites

Although Shopify is becoming a competitor in this space, the WooCommerce plugin for WordPress is an excellent choice for simple online stores. Many WordPress themes and plugins come with support for WooCommerce out of the box, making it easy to bolt a simple store onto an existing marketing site.

Backwards Compatibility

One underappreciated feature of WordPress it’s commitment to backwards compatibility. Like Microsoft, the WordPress developers bend over backwards to make sure that new versions of WordPress avoid breaking existing installations. Just as it’s possible to do a marathon upgrade upgrade from Windows 3.1 to Windows 10, it’s entirely possible to smoothly go from WordPress v1 (released in 2004) all the way to the most recent WordPress (v4.8 at the time of this post).

Here at Altos, we’ve even managed to do such an upgrade in as little as 10 minutes.

giphy 14

… But Choosy Devs Choose Drupal

Ask the experts (as in, the folks who use these tools for a living) and a good number will likely point you to the less-popular, but more robust solution: Drupal. While WordPress may power more sites, Drupal often powers complex, high traffic sites like the Weather Channel and the NBA.

Plenty Of Room for Activities

Drupal is designed to be customized to the exact needs of your site. Out of the box, it comes with everything you need to create a simple marketing site or blog, including a tagging system and content types for posts and pages. Its real strength, however, is its ability to easily define custom content types and create complex relationships between them.

For sites with a lot of content, many different types of content, or content with complex data structures, Drupal is a perfect fit. While WordPress plugins like Advanced Custom Fields let you add new fields to your custom post types, the ability to bend content to your will is baked into Drupal from the start.

When combined with the Views module, which lets you run complex queries against your content, Drupal’s customizable content gives you the power to showcase your data any way you want.

Easy to Use

Although Drupal is often considered more difficult to use than WordPress, this mostly applies to developers, and the developer experience of creating Drupal sites.

A well built Drupal site can actually be easier to use for end users than an equivalent WordPress site because:

  1. The ability to easily define custom content types allows developers to structure the backend in ways that are more intuitive for users that are entering content.
  2. Developers can completely customize the appearance and structure of the back-end to be easy to use.

giphy 11

Want To Go Your Own Way? Go Custom.

When working with custom applications - either as a frontend or backend - the standard options offered by Wordpress and Drupal may not cut it. Sites with highly complex relationships between lots of content may find WordPress tight in their capability range, or unable to meet a specific, customized need, while a lot of devs dislike Drupal for being bloated and overly complex.

For truly boutique needs, devs may be better off going fully custom and using custom framework tools like Symfony, Slim, or Laravel.

Ultra Flexible

Frameworks give you the tools to build whatever you want, however you prefer.

If your site has some crazy complex business logic, or needs to scale across multiple servers, or needs to function as a realtime API endpoint, you could bend either WordPress or Drupal to your will, but you’re better off using a framework that will let you develop your project to your exact specifications.

This works at the other end of the scale too: if your site has very limited functionality, but requires just a dash of dynamic features, you might not need all the power (and baggage) that comes with WordPress and Drupal. A lightweight framework like Silex, Slim or Lumen might be just the right size.

Lightning Fast ⚡

A framework site has everything you need and nothing you don’t, so it doesn’t suffer performance penalties from features your site doesn’t even use. Because of this, sites built in custom frameworks often have better performance than a similar sites built using WordPress or Drupal.

Frameworks also gives developers the ability to optimize the hell out of your site from the inside out, rather than just throwing a caching layer in front of something that’s intrinsically slow. Baking in performance from the get go means your site performs more like a cheetah, and less like a turtle strapped to a rocket powered skateboard.

But “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” Can Also Be Frustrating

Try Teaching All Those Idiosyncrasies

Flexibility and total control are great, but they mean that your site will be completely custom (aside from following best practices for whichever framework it’s built in), so it will be harder to onboard interns and new developers.

You’re Your Own Security Team

Your framework should give you some security tools to work with, but at the end of the day you are in charge of your own security when using a custom framework. Your solution probably won’t be as battle tested as more popular solutions.

On the other hand, if your custom site is relatively simple, you might actually have a smaller surface area for bugs and security holes. Security through obscurity can be a (tiny) part of your security solution, but it should never be your only one.

CMS 2

Time To Make Your Choice

Most of the popular CMS systems are like snowflakes: they can look surprisingly similar, but get look a little closer and it becomes clear that no two are really quite alike. Websites are the same way, and the right CMS system can be that power-up that turns your boring blog into a sleek, sophisticated storefront, forum, marketing site, and more.

In a perfect world, we’d use Drupal just about whenever possible - because, notably, we have the skills and the knowledge to work with it comfortably. However, in the case of a client looking for a simple blog site or basic online presence, it’s not uncommon to decide that WordPress is the best, simplest option.

Like the old saying goes: It’s not about size, it’s about how you use it.