Dave Whiting, the principal at Red Newt Cellars winery in upstate New York, was tired of chasing vendors to try to get them to support clunky custom content management systems on his site at RedNewt.com. The independent winemaker decided to branch out and teach himself site development skills, with the help of some popular open source applications. The happy result is a full-featured interactive ecommerce site that Whiting says is flexible, scalable, and secure.
Red Newt Cellars has been online since 2000, but in 2003 Whiting decided to upgrade the site and hired a commercial software developer to create a custom Web presence. "It was very expensive, and we sunk a lot of money into the site. But [the vendor] was unable to support it."
Whiting knew there had to be a better solution. He was aware that there were open source alternatives to expensive proprietary applications. He already used OpenOffice.org because "we couldn't afford Microsoft Office. For me as a small business, if I have a dozen computers that get used periodically and I want to install Office on every one, that's a tremendous liability." When searching online for content management systems, he found Mambo. He liked the features and the fact that it was free of cost, and set out looking for a developer to help him customize and install it. "I wasn't successful in finding a person to do this kind of work in an affordable fashion," Whiting says, so he decided to do it himself. As he learned more about open source and content management, he switched to Joomla!, a derivative of the Mambo project, as the base for RedNewt.com.
"I'm not a Web designer or a programmer. I'm a winemaker," Whiting says. By reading documentation and asking questions in the Joomla! user forums, he was able to make use of a free premade template, making "minor changes in the structure and layout. I don't mess too much with it. When it gets down to the nitty gritty, I know enough to be dangerous. If I was to try to build the site from scratch, I'd be totally lost."
Whiting says that RedNewt.com doesn't require much maintenance outside of fresh content on a regular basis, so even as the winery has grown larger there has been no need to hire a Web developer. "Joomla! has a real solid infrastructure. Setting up the site was not too difficult, and once that's done, generating content is the issue. You just need a PR person who has enough skills to use a point and click interface."
Whiting considered other CMS applications, including WordPress and Drupal, before he switched to Joomla! "It's one of the easiest interfaces. It seems to be more oriented toward managing and scheduling content. I can write it ahead of time and schedule when things appear." He likes how easy it is to "manipulate" the templates and layouts. "However, when we started doing more blogging, getting user feedback and registering users, Joomla! was not quite as easy as it would be with something like WordPress. But with WordPress, from what I can see, it's trickier to do raw content management. So there are different advantages to each."
RedNewt.com resides on its own hosted server at LiquidWeb, an arrangement Whiting says he likes better than the shared hosting provider he originally used. "We didn't have access to change the Apache settings" for security purposes. "The site was hacked, so we needed to tighten up our security." Whiting says LiquidWeb helped him install Apache and configure it. Even so, someone cracked the Joomla! admin password recently and added some rogue content to the site. Whiting didn't seem perturbed. "We just changed the administrator password and deleted the content."
Whiting is happy with the direction that he has seen open source software moving. "Things are a lot different than when I started. We were using the osCommerce shopping cart originally, and to make modifications you really had to gut out the code and change things. Now the solutions I've seen are mostly point and click, with really nice installed scripts and routines." Whiting has since switched from osCommerce to Zen Cart because "it is easier to use."
If you're thinking of doing your own CMS setup, Whiting says ask yourself, "What do I intend to do with my site? Find out what extensions or components you can add on, and what works well. When you see something, read through all the forums to figure out whether it will meet your needs and have the proper functionality based on others' experiences. After you've covered your bases, move ahead."