In the ever-evolving digital landscape, Content Management Systems (CMS) have become indispensable tools for a wide range of users - from marketing teams to small business owners looking to carve out their own space on the internet. These sophisticated platforms simplify the daunting task of creating, managing, and publishing diverse digital content.
While content management systems are here to stay, there are many considerations to make when working with your CMS to ensure long term stability. Depending on your skill level, you may also be in a position to utilize some alternative thinking and forego the growing pains of a CMS with the use of static websites!
From the integration of WYSIWYG editors to the complexities of security and scalability, we will cover the facets that make CMS both a powerful ally and a potential source of concern in the digital realm.
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Why Was The Content Management System Created?
Content Management Systems (CMS) are essential tools primarily utilized by marketing teams, individuals, and small groups aiming to establish an online presence and share their information globally. At their core, CMS platforms are sophisticated software solutions that streamline the creation, management, and publication of diverse digital content, including articles, images, and multimedia. They offer a suite of features for content organization, editing, maintenance, collaboration, version control, and customization. This empowers users to efficiently manage websites and online content without needing in-depth technical knowledge.
A notable feature of most CMSs is the inclusion of a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editor. This user-friendly tool enables creators to directly design and modify content in a format that mirrors the final presentation, making the process of developing and tailoring text, images, and other elements more accessible, without extensive coding skills.
Moreover, CMS platforms are often designed to support advanced plugin integration, enhancing their functionality beyond the standard offerings. This capability allows teams to introduce unique and innovative features to their websites, potentially gaining a competitive edge.
CMSs also typically include a structured content authoring workflow. This process involves drafting, reviewing, and publishing content, ideally suited for teams that follow an editorial-style workflow. This systematic approach ensures content readiness before its release on the internet.
The combination of these features renders CMS platforms highly approachable, even for novices. They are particularly beneficial for individuals or small teams eager to quickly establish and maintain a web presence.
However, while the advantages are clear, there are challenges, specifically concerning security, stability, and availability. These aspects often pose difficulties for IT teams in supporting CMS platforms.
In the following sections, we'll delve deeper into these critical facets of CMS, examining the potential hurdles and how they impact the overall management and support of these systems.
What Are The Dangers Of A CMS?
Just like with any internet facing technology security, stability, and availability are usually the top concerns for any organization looking to promote their digital presence online. A website being defaced or information being stolen is not a good look for anyone. If nobody can get to your website, that is also problematic.
Below are the primary areas that I have seen Content Management Systems cause issues in the seemingly simple world of publishing website content.
A predominant challenge with Content Management Systems (CMS) is the prevalence of bugs. These issues can stem from a variety of factors, such as version upgrades or plugin incompatibilities. While bugs are a common occurrence in any software, they are particularly notable in CMS platforms. This is often due to the lack of a stringent Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) process, especially among marketing teams who prioritize agility and market responsiveness over rigorous development protocols.
CMS platforms can be configured to allow users to install new plugins to enhance functionality. While this feature is beneficial, it can also introduce risks if not managed properly. Ideally, the ability to add plugins should be restricted to designated individuals, but even this measure often falls short of a formal SDLC workflow. This gap in process and oversight can lead to the introduction of bugs and vulnerabilities.
When issues arise, the responsibility of resolving them frequently falls to IT professionals, who may not have been involved in the initial setup of the CMS. This lack of familiarity can lead to extended troubleshooting and repair times, adversely affecting the website's performance and functionality. The disconnect between the setup and maintenance phases of a CMS underscores the importance of involving IT experts throughout the process, ensuring that the system remains robust, secure, and efficient.
2. Functionality Bloat
Normally when we think about bloat, we think about the new laptop we just purchased that comes with all of the prepackaged freeware that bogs down our brand new computer.
The challenge lies in managing these incremental additions and modifications over time. Without careful oversight and regular optimization, a CMS can become bloated, compromising both its efficiency and effectiveness. This underscores the need for ongoing maintenance and review of the system, ensuring that it remains streamlined and performs optimally for end users.
3. Lack of a Software Development Lifecycle Process
Trying to pair custom software development with new content or CMS upgrades can also be a significant challenge.
The fundamental concept behind a Content Management System (CMS) is to facilitate the entire content authoring flow directly within the production environment. This approach contrasts sharply with the traditional Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) methodology, which advocates for initiating changes in a development environment and methodically progressing them through various stages until they reach production.
The incongruity between these two approaches primarily arises because a production environment in the context of a CMS is constantly evolving and never remains static for long. This dynamic nature of production environments poses significant challenges in aligning it with the more structured, phased approach of SDLC.
One potential solution to bridge this gap is the practice of performing content migrations from the production system back down to lower-level environments. However, this process can become complex and resource-intensive, particularly if the CMS is handling large volumes of data, in the range of terabytes. The sheer size and complexity of the data can make these migrations cumbersome and challenging, highlighting the need for a balanced and strategic approach to manage content and code changes within a CMS.
Integrating new features developed through a Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) into a Content Management System (CMS) often leads to a methodological disconnect. This challenge becomes particularly pronounced when content creation and publishing occur within a development environment as part of the SDLC process. In such cases, this content, along with the associated code, needs to be advanced through higher environments before reaching production.
Typically, the process of pushing code changes is automated. However, the same level of automation is seldom applied to content migration from development to production environments. This disparity largely stems from the fact that most content authoring activities are conducted directly in the production environment of a CMS. As a result, automating content transfers from development to production is rare and can be complex, given the prevailing practices in content management.
This scenario highlights a significant challenge in synchronizing content and feature development within a CMS framework. It underscores the need for a more integrated approach, one that can seamlessly blend the agility of direct content publishing in production with the structured rigor of SDLC for feature development.
4. Load Balancing
As any website grows, it will need to scale to meet demand. Content Management Systems pose some unique challenges in this arena.
Content Management Systems (CMS) typically have the capability to upload new multimedia assets for end-user access. Managing these assets on a single-node system is relatively straightforward, with the primary concerns being disk space and performance.
However, the complexity increases significantly when transitioning to a load-balanced CMS, where assets must be accessible across multiple servers. Achieving this requires advanced configuration, which is often overlooked until performance issues arise. This oversight is common in the transition from a single-node to a multi-node environment, where asset availability and synchronization across servers become critical for maintaining performance and user experience.
Addressing this challenge often involves retrospective measures to ensure that newly uploaded multimedia assets are effectively distributed and accessible across all servers in the load-balanced system. This scenario underscores the importance of proactive planning and configuration in multi-server CMS environments to prevent potential performance bottlenecks related to multimedia asset management.
In a single-node Content Management System (CMS), managing user or content author logins is a straightforward process, as all session information is handled by a single server.
However, in a multi-node CMS setup, the login process becomes more complex. There are two primary methods to manage user sessions in such an environment: storing session information in a database or using sticky sessions in a load balancer. Each method has its implications.
Storing session information in a database allows for flexibility and consistency across multiple nodes. Users can seamlessly interact with the system regardless of which server their requests are processed by. This approach, however, may require more robust database management to handle the increased load.
On the other hand, sticky sessions, where users are tied to a specific server for the duration of their session, can be problematic. While this method ensures that a user's interactions remain on a single server, it also means that if the server experiences issues, all users tied to that server will encounter problems. This can lead to uneven distribution of load and potential points of failure, as the user experience is directly dependent on the performance of the specific server they are connected to.
Database sessions also pose interesting performance considerations. Checkout
7. Database Performance for more information about potential impacts.
Therefore, in a multi-node CMS environment, careful consideration and configuration of session management are crucial to ensure a stable and consistent user experience. This involves balancing the need for reliability and user session continuity against the potential risks associated with tying users to specific servers.
Horizontal scalability, the ideal scenario for many systems, involves adding parallel resources as needed and then scaling them down when they are not in use. However, Content Management Systems (CMS) present unique challenges in achieving this scalability:
- Cost: Hosting a CMS platform, even on a single server, can be expensive. Horizontal scaling, which involves adding more servers, leads to a rapid increase in expenses. Furthermore, if there's a need to scale vertically (enhancing the capacity of existing servers) for performance reasons, the costs can escalate from linear to exponential growth.
- Components: Some CMS platforms pre-render components and store them in memory. In such cases, scaling is not a straightforward or automatic process. It requires careful planning and orchestration, taking into account the patterns of end-user engagement. This means that scaling actions must be strategically aligned with how and when users interact with the system, rather than being a simple matter of adding resources.
- Dependencies: Scaling a CMS involves more than just adding extra servers. It's essential to consider the entire ecosystem, including file storage, databases, and any other downstream technologies. All these components need to be able to scale in tandem with the CMS. This integrated approach to scalability ensures that the system remains balanced and efficient, avoiding bottlenecks or performance issues in any one part of the system.
While the concept of horizontal scalability is appealing, its implementation in CMS platforms is complex and multi-faceted, requiring a comprehensive approach that addresses cost, component management, and dependencies.
5. Core Changes VS Custom Changes
Content authors often have a strong preference for personalization, especially since out-of-the-box Content Management Systems (CMS) tend to offer a uniform user experience. This desire for individualization leads them to seek modifications and customizations within their CMS platforms.
CMS platforms can generally be divided into two categories: core features and custom features. Modifying core features of a CMS can have long-term implications. Future upgrades to the system become more labor-intensive as these modifications might conflict with new updates or enhancements provided by the CMS. This can lead to a significant increase in the effort required to maintain the system over time.
On the other hand, creating custom features presents its own set of challenges. There is an ongoing tension between the need to keep these features updated and the CMS platform's evolving capabilities. As the CMS undergoes updates, certain functionalities may become deprecated, necessitating continuous development and adaptation of custom features. This results in an "arms race" where content authors and developers are constantly working to ensure that their customizations remain functional and relevant amidst the evolving landscape of the CMS platform.
While personalization is highly valued by content authors, it brings complexities in terms of system maintenance and compatibility, particularly when dealing with the dichotomy of modifying core features versus creating and updating custom features in a CMS.
Security is a very dynamic and ever changing landscape that cannot ever be covered in totality. I am going to focus on the top 3 security perspectives and this is by no means an exhaustive list of security concerns.
End User Security Risks
In Content Management Systems (CMS), end-user security risks primarily arise from two sources: Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) and identity theft.
XSS Attacks: XSS vulnerabilities typically occur in areas of a CMS where user input is accepted, such as comment sections. These sections, if not properly secured, can become gateways for attackers to inject malicious scripts. When other users view these compromised sections, the malicious code can execute, potentially leading to unauthorized access or other security breaches. Carefully crafted user inputs in these areas can expose end users to harmful content, compromising the integrity of the website and the safety of its users.
Identity Theft: CMS platforms often prioritize usability, which can result in lax security practices like the absence of Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) or regular password rotation policies. This approach makes user accounts more vulnerable to dictionary attacks, where attackers systematically attempt to guess passwords. Without stronger authentication measures or additional security layers such as Web Application Firewalls (WAFs), user identities can be easily compromised, leading to unauthorized access and potential misuse of sensitive information.
Content Uploads: Compromised content can be uploaded by content authors who are not well versed in information security. Images, video, etc. is then consumed by end users compromising their systems as well.
These two primary attack vectors highlight the need for robust security measures in CMS platforms. Implementing stronger input validation and sanitization can mitigate XSS risks, while enhancing user authentication methods can significantly reduce the likelihood of identity theft. Balancing usability with security is crucial to protect both the integrity of the CMS and the safety of its end users.
Authoring Security Risks
In many instances, the authoring endpoints of Content Management Systems (CMS), such as "/wp-login.php" for WordPress, are not adequately secured on the internet. This lack of specialized security measures leaves them vulnerable to brute-force attacks. In such attacks, hackers systematically try various combinations of usernames and passwords until they gain access. Since it only takes one set of compromised credentials to potentially jeopardize an entire website, this is a significant security concern.
A practical approach to mitigate this risk involves running a secondary instance of the CMS platform. For example, in a WordPress setup, one could operate a public-facing website with the admin pages entirely blocked to prevent unauthorized access. Simultaneously, the authoring instance, where content creation and management occur, would have enhanced security measures such as IP allowlist restrictions. This setup restricts access to the authoring tools to a set of predefined, trusted IP addresses, significantly reducing the likelihood of unauthorized access.
This strategy of separating the public and authoring instances, combined with additional security layers for the authoring endpoint, follows a more secure approach. It effectively creates a safer environment for content management while maintaining the integrity and security of the public-facing website.
Server Focused Security Risks
Security risks are numerous, but I have detailed out the most common attack vectors below. Do not rely on this list as an exhaustive list, make sure to routinely scan your systems for vulnerabilities to get a more complete view of security risks.
In Content Management Systems (CMS), plugins play a crucial role in enhancing functionality based on the requirements of content authors. However, even seemingly innocuous plugins can pose significant security risks if not properly vetted. When these plugins are uploaded to a server without thorough review, they might contain hidden functionalities that harvest sensitive information.
This compromised data can then be transmitted to external parties, who could potentially use it for malicious purposes. The danger lies in the fact that these plugins, on the surface, appear harmless and are often installed to meet specific content needs. Yet, without a careful examination of their code and functionalities, they can become conduits for data breaches.
This scenario underscores the importance of a robust security protocol for reviewing and approving plugins in a CMS. It's essential to ensure that any added plugin is scrutinized for security vulnerabilities and privacy implications before being integrated into the system. Such preventive measures are crucial in protecting not only the system's integrity but also the confidentiality and security of the data it handles.
Additionally, SQL injection attacks are numerous in the CMS space. Since content is driven via tables in the database, one of the primary attack vectors for CMS is via SQL injection. SQL Injection is the act of processing a malicious payload that will have impact to a database.
SQL Injection Attacks
CMS platforms typically store and manage content using databases, often structured in tables. This database-driven nature of CMS makes them particularly vulnerable to SQL injection attacks.
SQL injection is a cyber attack technique where the attacker inserts or "injects" malicious SQL statements into an input field. These inputs are designed to manipulate or exploit the database that drives the CMS. Since CMS platforms heavily rely on database operations for content management – such as retrieving, updating, or deleting content – they become prime targets for such attacks.
The impact of an SQL injection can be severe. Attackers might gain unauthorized access to sensitive data, including personal user information, proprietary content, and administrative credentials. In some cases, attackers can even escalate their privileges to gain extensive control over the CMS, modify content, or disrupt service operations.
Moreover, the flexibility and customization features of many CMS platforms can inadvertently increase their vulnerability. Plugins, themes, and custom code, if not properly secured or regularly updated, can introduce security gaps exploitable through SQL injection.
7. Database Performance
In a Content Management System (CMS), the database is the central component that impacts all users - content authors, system administrators, and end users. Its performance is crucial; if the database is underperforming, content authors struggle to update content, system administrators face difficulties in managing the system, and end users experience issues accessing the website.
Database scalability within a CMS context is often a complex issue, typically leaning towards vertical scalability. This is due to the fact that CMS databases are usually not designed to be shardable (divided into smaller, more manageable databases). As a result, the primary option for handling increased load and data volume is to enhance the capacity of the existing database - essentially making it larger and more powerful.
However, this approach of scaling up the database comes with significant challenges. Increasing the size and capacity of a database server invariably leads to higher costs - not just in terms of the server hardware itself, but also in aspects like licensing and maintenance operations, including backups. Larger databases require more resources for upkeep, making them more expensive and complex to manage.
This situation emphasizes the need for careful planning and optimization in CMS database management. While expanding the database is often necessary to accommodate growth, it's equally important to optimize database performance and efficiency to mitigate the escalating costs and complexities of vertical scalability.
Mitigation for CMS Dangers
The options for addressing issues in Content Management Systems (CMS) are notably constrained, primarily due to the inherent limitations of the CMS architecture. Typically, resolving these challenges involves expanding the technology infrastructure and embracing increased complexity. This expansion is often necessary to effectively mitigate the risks and limitations posed by the CMS's foundational design.
Content Delivery Networks and Web Application Firewalls
Utilizing a Content Delivery Network (CDN) is an effective initial strategy for managing website traffic. Since most web pages are static, without dynamic content, deploying a CDN can significantly enhance performance. By serving content from edge servers rather than directly from the origin CMS, a CDN reduces the load on the CMS, thereby easing scalability demands.
Furthermore, given that Content Management Systems (CMS) are well-recognized and widely used, implementing a standard Web Application Firewall (WAF) can add an additional layer of security. However, it's important to carefully evaluate the setup to ensure there are no potential bypass routes around the WAF. Such scrutiny is crucial to maximize the effectiveness of the firewall and provide comprehensive protection for your website.
Transferring your multimedia content from your Content Management System (CMS) to an object storage solution like Amazon S3 can significantly alleviate the load on your system. This transition typically involves integrating a plugin into your CMS. Once implemented, this setup enables content to be both uploaded to and served from the object storage, rather than directly through your CMS servers. As a result, the CMS servers experience a substantial reduction in load, enhancing overall system performance and efficiency.
Static Websites are the Best!
Static websites and their hosting solutions offer a different set of challenges compared to the issues outlined earlier for dynamic sites. These static sites, often lacking a WYSIWYG editor, typically rely on Markdown or HTML for content creation and are powered by static site generators like Hugo or Jekyll.
Unlike dynamic websites, static sites don't usually incorporate backend technologies such as PHP, which means advanced features like user logins or content uploads aren't natively supported. However, they often adopt a version control-based methodology for content management, with the added flexibility of using object storage for assets instead of solely relying on version control systems.
One of the key strengths of static websites lies in their stability, security, and availability. The absence of complex underlying logic that could potentially malfunction makes them exceptionally stable and secure. This simplicity in architecture often leads to a more robust and reliable web presence, free from many of the vulnerabilities and performance issues associated with dynamic sites.
Expanding further, static websites represent a simpler, yet highly effective approach to web hosting and design, particularly in terms of stability, security, and performance. This simplicity is primarily due to the nature of the content they serve – static HTML files, which are inherently more secure and less prone to errors compared to dynamic content generated on the fly.
Content Creation and Management: Without a WYSIWYG editor, content creation on static websites typically involves writing in Markdown or HTML. This method might require a bit more technical know-how compared to dynamic CMS platforms but offers greater control over the content. Static site generators like Hugo or Jekyll automate the process of converting these files into static HTML, making it easier to manage large sites.
Lack of Backend Processing: Static sites usually don't have backend processing capabilities like a dynamic CMS. Functions such as user authentication, dynamic content rendering, or database interactions, common in CMS platforms like WordPress, are absent. This limitation means static sites are less suited for applications that require interactive features or user-specific content delivery.
Hosting and Scalability: Static websites are generally easier and cheaper to host. They can be served from simple hosting services, including those specializing in static site hosting. The lack of server-side processing also means that static websites can easily scale to handle high traffic loads without requiring complex infrastructure or expensive hosting plans.
Version Control and Asset Management: Static websites often integrate seamlessly with version control systems like Git, allowing for efficient tracking of changes and collaborative development. For asset management, these sites can leverage object storage solutions like Amazon S3, which provides a scalable and secure way to store and deliver large amounts of static content.
Superior Stability, Security, and Availability: The simplicity of static websites translates to fewer points of failure. Without the need for server-side processing or database interactions, the risks of security vulnerabilities like SQL injection or XSS attacks are significantly reduced. Additionally, the static nature of these sites often results in faster loading times and higher availability, as there is less dependency on server resources.
Flexibility and Customization: While static sites are inherently less flexible in terms of dynamic content generation, they offer a high degree of customization in design. Developers have full control over the HTML and CSS, allowing for tailored designs without the constraints of CMS templates.
While static websites forgo some of the interactive capabilities of dynamic CMS-based sites, they excel in terms of security, performance, and ease of maintenance. They are particularly well-suited for content-driven sites where stability and speed are paramount.
Static Websites with DevOps
Static websites integrate seamlessly into a GitOps workflow, which is in perfect harmony with the principles of DevOps. In this approach, content is first committed to a version-controlled repository. This action triggers an automated process that takes over the subsequent stages.
The automation is designed to execute test suites automatically, ensuring that the content meets predefined quality standards. If these quality gates are successfully passed, the automation then seamlessly transitions the content to a live environment.
This streamlined process not only enhances efficiency but also maintains a high standard of quality control, embodying the core ideals of DevOps methodologies.
A Blended Approach
Static websites, while efficient and secure, often don't align with the needs and skills of content marketing teams. The primary reason is the technical learning curve associated with understanding and using the underlying technologies like HTML, CSS, Markdown, and static site generators. For content creators who are not deeply versed in web development, this can be a significant barrier.
Content marketing teams typically excel in creating engaging, dynamic content, and their strengths lie more in communication and creativity rather than technical web development. Expecting them to master the intricacies of these technologies can divert their focus from their core competencies, potentially affecting the quality and effectiveness of their work. Continuous learning is valuable, but it's also crucial that professionals concentrate on their areas of expertise to produce high-quality outcomes.
To harness the benefits of both systems, a blended approach can be highly effective. This approach involves using a CMS for managing and updating dynamic content, which is where content marketing teams usually excel. A CMS interface is generally more user-friendly and requires less technical know-how, making it ideal for quick content updates, blog posts, and managing interactive features.
For more static content that doesn't require frequent updates – such as informational pages, company details, or historical archives – static site hosting can be a more suitable option. This part of the website can benefit from the security, speed, and stability advantages of static sites.
This blended strategy allows each system to be used for what it does best. It ensures that content marketing teams can focus on creating and managing dynamic, engaging content without the need to delve into complex web development, while still leveraging the performance and security benefits of static site hosting for appropriate parts of the website.
While static websites offer many advantages, they may not be the best fit for content marketing teams due to the technical skills required. A combined approach using a CMS for dynamic content and static hosting for more permanent, unchanging content can provide an optimal solution, balancing ease of use with efficiency and security.
Navigating the world of Content Management Systems is a journey of balancing ease of use with technical challenges. While CMS offers remarkable tools for dynamic content creation and management, it's not without its pitfalls, especially in terms of security, performance, and scalability.
Addressing these challenges often requires expanding technological infrastructure and embracing complexity. For those seeking a simpler, more secure alternative, static websites emerge as a strong contender, especially when combined with CMS in a blended approach. This strategy offers the best of both worlds - the dynamic, user-friendly nature of CMS for content-rich sections and the stability and security of static hosting for more permanent content.
As we move forward in the digital age, understanding and leveraging the strengths of both CMS and static hosting will be key to creating effective, secure, and user-friendly online experiences.