When building a website or a web application, the first thing you need to decide on is what tools you are going to use. You could build from scratch, but not everyone knows programming languages like PHP, or display languages like HTML and CSS. Content management systems reduce the need to have that expertise, while frameworks provide a set of features that you can use to create a custom application. CMS’ and frameworks are very different from one another.
The goal of this article is to clear the confusion and help you understand the basic theory, features, and differences between these two systems.
The Basics – CMS’ vs. Frameworks
When people say “framework,” more often than not what they mean is a web application framework. A framework is a library that makes it possible to develop a web application using pre-written code. CodeIgniter, CakePHP, Zend, and Django are some of the well-known examples of web application frameworks. These frameworks power thousands of websites, but you wouldn’t know it just by visiting those sites. Most websites that are developed using a framework don’t carry a specific look. They can’t be distinguished from any other website. The framework’s code merely powers some of the functionality behind the site, it doesn’t affect the way it looks.
On the other hand, a CMS or content management system is a web application for managing content. A CMS is built on top of an underlying framework. It enables users to install themes, plugins, etc. without effecting the essential functionality of the site.
A CMS typically doesn’t require any coding knowledge since it is based on installable modules that don’t touch the original code. It is a simple and easy way to create websites and it does what its name suggests – it allows you to manage the content of your website. Some examples of CMS’ you might have heard of include Joomla, Drupal, and WordPress.
So which one is better?
Frameworks and CMS’ are completely different tools, which means it depends on your needs – each side has valid arguments. To paint a clearer picture, let’s go over the main differences between the two.
The proponents of CMS’ have one very solid point – why reinvent the wheel? In other words, why build something that has been built before when you can buy it or download it for free in many cases. With a CMS you get a predefined set of features, you can choose an already styled theme for your website and you can add new features by easily installing plugins.
However, complications might arise when you need the website to adapt to your specific needs.
With a framework, you have to build everything from scratch but you can create distinctive and unique features. Frameworks don’t reinvent the wheel either, because the code you’re using is providing a base of features such as a login system or user privileges.
Frameworks are highly customizable and CMS’ typically have limitations. For instance, you can’t really change the core functionality of a CMS or it won’t update properly, but a framework has no limits.
Security should be one of your biggest concerns when building a website or an application, especially if it’s for an online business.
The majority of CMS’ are open-source, which means the code is available to anyone. At first glance, this is a good thing, but it also makes the job of hackers and anyone with a malicious purpose a little easier.
Since websites developed using frameworks will feature their own custom code that is integrated into the framework, it’s much harder to find security flaws. Furthermore, many frameworks come with built-in functions like SQL injection or Cross Site Scripting that allow for encryption and protection against the most common types of attacks.
A well-developed framework is far more secure than a generic CMS, but content management systems often have plugins and mods to strengthen their security.
Depending on the type of business you are building a website for, there’s a chance you will need to include unique features that aren’t typical of a web development project. That can include integration with third-party applications or connecting with independent systems. For example, a website might need to integrate with a CRM (customer relationship management) tool, like Salesforce or connect with an order-processing system such as FileMaker.
Frameworks can be molded to your needs, while CMS’ have to adapt
CMS’ can be adapted to have a lot of features through the use of plugins, but they are not very flexible. If you do need an additional feature for your website that you can’t find through its theme and plugin libraries, this will require custom development. That development will have to be solved in-house, or at a cost from a freelancer or agency. If this is the case, you are probably better off using a framework where your options and creativity are unlimited.
When it comes to flexibility, frameworks offer much more freedom than CMS’ but they it comes at a high development cost.
Having a website that’s up to date with the latest features releases is extremely important. It not helps keep your website secure, but those updates could target virtually any feature on your site.
Content management systems are updated regularly
CMS’ are a clear winner in this category. CMS’ usually update every month, and they are installable at the click of a button. Of course, you will always want to take a backup of your site, even before installing an office update from your CMS provider. Things can go wrong and content management systems are no exception.
A framework is rarely updated and must be maintained
Frameworks do have updates, but much less often and even then, it’s often best to stay with your original framework. A website developed using a framework can stay secure and functional even without updates if it was secured properly originally and the code hasn’t been tampered with. This just isn’t the case with CMS’, especially opensource systems.
When you use frameworks, you open the door for customization, flexibility, and superior security. On the other hand, CMS websites are much easier to build and maintain as you don’t need to know PHP, or any programming language for that matter.
How to choose
Ultimately, the choice will always depend on the project in question and its unique requirements, so there is no straight forward answer. Consider these questions about the project to help you make your decision:
- The amount of time you’re willing to spend on the project.
- The amount of money you can invest into the project. Even if you are a programmer, large development projects often encounter bugs and errors that will need to be peer reviewed. You have to account for testing the software and getting assistance with the code when you need it.
- The project’s unique requirements and how flexible the website needs to be.
- The hosting environment for the website. Shared, VPS or dedicated? Each has its own advantages and disadvantages that will need to be considered.
CMS’ are easier to use if your project requirements are relatively straightforward. In many cases, all that’s required is downloading and installing the software, and you’re immediately up and running.
Avoid ongoing development costs
A content management system is probably the best option for people who don’t have much programming knowledge and have no interest in learning. If your budget’s tight, the last thing you want to do is open up a can of worms by paying a programmer to customize a framework.
Less bugs and dependable core set of features
Another advantage of CMS projects is that they don’t require additional testing and bug-fixing. Customizing the design and adding features through plugins can still be tedious but the open-source nature of a CMS will make that a lot easier
Frameworks can save time on large web development projects
With projects that use frameworks, custom programming allows you to build the website exactly the way you want it. It is absolutely the right choice for building big applications with large feature-sets and unique requirements. You can even protect custom coded solutions legally to ensure it can’t be copied.
Both CMS’ and frameworks are discrete
In most cases, nobody will know about the tools you used to build the website. If you’re concerned using a CMS will jeopardize your brand, it’s highly unlikely it will have any kind of negative impact.
What really matters is the result. What is the value you are providing to your audience and the overall functionality your website offers? If you are building a relatively simple and generic website – go with a CMS, but for more complicated projects with a substantial budget a framework is better suited.