Introducing October CMS

It’s been a while since there has been a change in the landscape for Content Management Systems. Recently, an interesting player emerged in the market: a new CMS that launched in open beta earlier this year called October CMS. Building a CMS website with any sort of out-of-scope features can be notoriously complicated, but these guys tout themselves as a platform that gets back to basics. A curious and bold statement, so let’s take a look and see if your reaction is “great… just what we need, yet another CMS” or “finally, a CMS that does what I need!”

It is clear the developers have put some fresh ideas in this product. It uses a file-based approach for storing the website structure and tries to put you directly behind the wheel, giving you complete control over the design. A nice idea, but after installing a copy, does it live up to the expectations? Here are some pros and cons you might find when working with this new kid on the block.

Some pros, some cons

Pro:  It’s new

You might be a sucker for anything new and technology related, like opening a new product from Apple, there’s a certain feeling you get from trying something new. A feeling of being inspired by the new possibilities.

This CMS definitely falls into this category.  There is a certain nuance of ‘freshness’ and ‘inspiration’ that comes when you open up something designed as elegantly as the October CMS backend is.  Its ultra-clean flat UI makes building sites seamless and intuitive, and yet practical at the same time.  It’s easy to get instantly inspired to build out a new website and the process for doing this was surprisingly easy.  Specifically, it’s simple to bring across an existing theme/design. Because it is entirely file-based, the whole process feels natural.

Con:  It’s new

New is a risk.  Lets face it. It’s relatively untested, unproven, and based on our experience almost every other software experience we’ve all had at some point, could melt down and make you look stupid at any moment. Over time, this too should subside for October CMS; but as new as it is, this is definitely a consideration.

It has a marketplace of plugins and themes; but at this point the offering is slim, and could leave you having to code up some of your own components and plugins early on.  And although new plugins are being built by early adopters every week, it has a long way to go.

Another adverse effect of being new is simply the learning curve. For some there may be a steep learning curve depending on what you are trying to achieve and your adaptiveness to new approaches on how you go about building out websites.

Pro:  Performance

From a performance standpoint, the decision to use flat-files for serving content means October produces some seriously fast load times for pages. Just like a static HTML website, loading a page means the raw content is served up almost instantly. Plugin settings and content snippets are YAML coded to each page saving precious milliseconds in load times. Don’t worry though, October handles all of the config data  for you. More on that further down.

October CMS has made some smart decisions about the underlying technology, because it’s built on the popular PHP framework Laravel. Dynamic plugins like Event management are loaded with unimpeachable speed using Elequent’s ORM layer, the database access layer packaged with Laravel. Using these tried and true tools can make all the difference in site performance.

Con: Lacking client friendly features

October CMS serves the designer or developer very well, although it is hard to ignore this feels like a tool centric to the designer. As of right now, it does not have any elegant way to handle non-technical users managing the website content. After some poking around, it appears there are some tools in the pipeline to address this, but for now it is not exactly something you could hand over to a to client with confidence.

Right now your only option is to build bespoke content management plugins, for many this is not a huge deal, but for larger companies this will be a deal-breaker. Hopefully this is rectified soon.

Pro: A developer’s dream

If you love semantic markup and having full control over your HTML, JavaScript and Stylesheets, this CMS is going to feel like a breath of fresh air compared to using some of other big players.

The “pro” side always seems to come back to this core feature, the fact that it uses HTML for page delivery and editing markup. It means you can literally develop header and footer includes (or as they call them ‘partials’) and directly modify your HTML markup without ever having to tab out of your CMS.

Including plugins is as simple as a dragging and dropping onto the markup editor wherein it will auto tag a Twig snippet for you. You can then either stick with the default HTML that comes with the plugin, or you can literally open up the component to reveal the content inside by holding down the command key (or control in Windows) and double clicking on the tag. This replaces the snippet with all the markup used by the plugin, so you can customize the HTML directly, or add your own styles.

Another striking convenience is that converting any HTML theme to October is stupid easy.  It’s very unlike most CMSs where there is a ton of PHP and folder structures to figure out as well as system-wide CSS to dance around. It’s much more simple, and literally can be up and running with only HTML so that you can build out and rough in your Bootstrap or Foundation designs super fast.

The highest praise for October CMS is how well everything systemwide is organised. It results in a platform that is easy to learn, yet flexible enough to meet the needs of more complicated websites. Every website starts from nothing, so there are no annoying CSS conflicts to deal with.

Con:  Made for the HTML savvy

If you are a big fan of in-context editing, and writing HTML makes you nervous, October CMS is probably not for you. It’s built completely around making a developer’s life productive and efficient, and that really shows.

There was little concern or regard for the non-HTML savvy when building this CMS.  If you’re a developer, this is fantastic news. If you’re not, you’re going to be sorely disappointed with the learning curve.

Although there is an in-context content plugin, it’s very basic and not what you would consider front-end client friendly.

Instead the philosophy here seems to be this: develop apps for your clients that help them manage what they need, and leave the layout and front-end experience to the people who truly understand what and how to do that… AKA, you.

Many have been asking for this approach for a long time, but some will find this lacking in client experience depending on your expectation of site management and content delivery.

Pro: Product quality

Although there is no such thing as code without bugs, the open source GitHub repo is lively and active with suggestions, improvements, translations, and active bug reports and fixes. For as young as the platform is, we are impressed with the quality of code in general.

The Laravel patterned code is glorious and simple to get rolling with as well.  In nearly no time at all we had produced a number of plugins within just a few days of learning October.  The documentation is fairly robust, and what is not there is covered within Laravel or Twig’s documentation.

Con: Best of all worlds

While HTML may be a second fluent language for most of us, there are some aspects of October CMS, specifically if you want to get in and develop your own plugins, that could be entirely new to you.

If you are not well versed in Laravel, you will have to learn a number of things if you want to create your own plugins.  So goes the same for ORM functionality and database relationships.

October also implements YAML files for form building.  This felt a bit strange and disconnected at first.  Almost a bit unnecessary.  Unless you are super adventurous, as a designer, I would not anticipate this mattering much to you.

However, even the page architecture utilizes some YAML-ish syntax based on INI settings (yes, a classic from Windows) for associating plugins and settings to a page.  This is really not so much a negative, as any time a page loads up its components and settings are loaded up straight from a page header rather than hitting up a database.  So in that regard, it’s quite nice. It’s also generated automatically.

So when you do look at your HTML pages, you will see some very plain and generic text near the top of the file.  That would be the INI data.

Wrapping up

Certainly no CMS is without its downsides, but overall, this is an impressive piece of kit.  The static HTML page loading and performance is a very clever idea, implemented in a way that does not sacrifice flexibility (like giving up the luxury of a database).

If you’re not HTML savvy, then this is probably not the CMS for you. But, if you live in a world of semantic markup and site maintenance, and if client handholding is of no consideration to you, October CMS should be a top contender.

It’s elegantly designed, beautifully coded, and offers a host of simple approaches to building out websites that no other CMS offers.  October is definitely one to keep an eye on, and I fully expect to see this CMS grow quite a bit over time.

Chad is CodeStrategist and CEO of CodeStrat Inc, and has developed dozens of mobile and full scale applications integrating Concrete5 API. Drop him a line and check out his tutorials at chadstrat.com, or view his latest Concrete5 addon releases. More articles by Chad Cantrell
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