MODx – the best open-source CMS available?

MODx CMS

Some background

Some years ago I found myself taking on a large web project, managing a web site with several hundred pages, edited by several people with little (if any) knowledge of HTML, and which needed a serious overhaul.  Initially I tried streamlining the process of dealing with all those static HTML files by creating a simple PHP framework to insert a common header and footer to each page, which significantly simplified the whole process of editing content.  However, it wasn’t long before I realised that a proper Content Management System was what the doctor ordered, and preferably one that was free.

So it was, then, that I started a little research into what CMSs were available, and tried out a few of the demo installations on www.opensourcecms.com.  There were a few that I had heard of, even back then, and which promised fantastic performance, easy-to-use interface, complete cusomisation, and more bells and whistles than you could shake a keyboard at.  Among those I tried were Joomla, Mambo, e107, EZ Publish and a few others.  Most turned out to be quite complex, and while they offered plenty of options for technical people I found them to be a little less friendly for people less web-savvy than I.  I eventually settled with Etomite, which didn’t offer quite so much in terms of bells and whistles, but which enabled rapid development through its simple templating system, and had such a simple back-end interface that I could satisfactorily introduce my client to it.

A year or so on and our Etomite installation was upgraded to MODx, which started out as a branch of Etomite but which eventually became its own entity entirely.  I found MODx to be everything Etomite was but more.  The interface was more streamlined, more sensible, and offered a few extras that I had been sorely missing.  I’ve been with MODx ever since, and have been using it on the vast majority of the sites I’ve created for my clients.

What’s so great about MODx?

So what makes MODx so good?  What is it about MODx that means I’m still using it years later, even when the competition has upgraded their own products?

There are several criteria that I deem to be important to me and my clients, and the most important thing to realise here is that I and my clients have completely different needs from a CMS.  I like the power built into MODx, allowing me to make powerful and seamlessly integrated PHP applications through its ‘snippet’ functionality, and the ability to quickly and easily extend what MODx does by putting in more snippets and plugins made by other people.  My clients like it because the interface is blindingly obvious.  There is a document tree on the left showing you where all the pages are, so you don’t get lost no matter how big the site is.  Editing the content is done courtesy of the sublime TinyMCE editor, which gives an accurate and powerful WYSIWYG form of interaction not too dissimilar from Word, which makes it familiar and easy to pick up.

For some time I took all this for granted, until recently.  As a spur-of-the-moment thing, I decided to look around at the competition to see how MODx compares to the other CMS offerings around today.  I was surprised to find that nothing even came close.  Sure, frameworks like Mambo and Joomla (which are essentially the same thing but branched off separately, much like Etomite and MODx) have a massive user-base and loads of plugins to extend the functionality, but for me the back-end just wasn’t clear enough.  The document organisation didn’t look comprehensive enough to cope with hundreds of pages without it getting out of hand, and the editing capability was ropey to say the least.

Some of the other offerings, such as EZ Publish for instance, take a different approach to editing content, by enabling editors to log in to an alternative version of the actual web site, showing editing tools to change the content right there on the page, inline rather than from a back-end.  While this may appeal to some people, I find it makes that line between content and appearance just slightly too blurred.  Sure, it’s nice to see what the page will look like before you press the save button and commit it, but for me it just didn’t feel right.

Am I being too picky?  Am I favouring MODx just because I know it and I’m familiar with it?  I guess what it comes down to is how easy it is to teach someone else to use it.  I’ve done this a few times with MODx, teaching my clients how to manage their own web sites, and very few of them are particularly computer-literate.  Within an hour and a half I can get them using the MODx CMS, and they feel confident being able to understand how it all works and knowing how to do everything they’ll need to do.  Looking at some of the other systems on the market, I think it would take me a while to get to grips with them, let alone someone who didn’t understand things quickly!

The conclusion

So there we go.  MODx is powerful (with access to PHP and a good API for its own inner workings too), customisable (with astoundingly easy templating), extendable (with plugins and snippets readily available to download and constantly being developed and improved), easy to use (whether you’re a techie or not), and almost limitlessly scaleable (I’ve got sites on MODx from 6 pages to over 700, some with 1 editor and some with up to 30).  The only other system I would consider for hosting a web site is WordPress, but even that would be for a particular sort of site rather than a generic CMS.

Rock on MODx.

4 thoughts on “MODx – the best open-source CMS available?

  1. I’m inclined to agree with you, Matthew. I use MODx for the Fordham website (on your recommendation, I believe) and it’s been great. It’s accommodated everything we wanted to do with the site effortlessly – just write a bit more PHP in a snippet, and you’re away!

    I probably haven’t tried as many CMSs as you, but the ones I did try seemed pretty complicated. I tried Drupal – I’ve heard good things about it – but it has an incredibly steep learning curve, even for someone like me (and I’ve been doing websites for years).

    I think MODx’s strength is in creating reasonably static websites with lots of pages. I think Drupal and Mambo and the like would probably be better at creating more “blog” / “news” style sites where each section had regularly updated bits. But if you just want to get a site up there with pages that don’t change every week, MODx is great.

  2. Hi Matthew,

    Thanks for the great MODx post.

    Your points highlight the some of the very same reasons I have adopted it (and am now part of the Marketing Team).

    I feel very strongly as someone who works with small business that I have to be sure that I can turn the site over to someone who doesn’t have any technical skill and have them easily learn how to use it within an hour or 2.

    I offer free support to any client whom is managing their own site and rarely have a call for help.

    That is good business.

    I’m happy you are happy and if there is anything you’d like to see don’t be afraid to share it in the forums.

    Sincerely and all the best,

    Jay

  3. Hi Matthew,
    Just like you, MODx has become my preferred CMS, and I really enjoy working with it.
    However, my MODx skills are not quite perfect, and I need some help on some issues.
    For instance, I have been trying to use the eForm snippet to process forms on the site and I just can’t seem to get it right.
    How do I use eForm to process my contact forms?
    Please any input would be really appreciated.

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