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Quick Take Review: Umbraco Web Content Management System

logo-umbraco-2009-05.jpg Umbraco is one of only a few open source web content management systems built on Microsoft's .NET technology stack. This CMS is no "out the box" solution. To the contrary, it's a content management system for .NET web developers. And while it's relatively straightforward to use, one must first deal with a steep learning curve.

We took a close look at the latest version of Umbraco (v4.01) and here's what we found.

Introducing Umbraco

When getting started with Umbraco there are some key themes to keep in mind:

  • A CMS for developers — Empower web developers
  • Steep learning curve — Straight forward to use once you get over that learning curve
  • Not an out of the box, modular solution — Customized to meet your needs
  • A framework for .NET web developers

Umbraco was not designed to be a plug-and-play solution like Drupal or Joomla. Niels Hartvig, the creator of Umbraco, tried to build a system that didn't limit him on what he could do and yet still pleased non-technical clients. That was seven years ago.

Today, Umbraco is one of the best known .NET open source web content management systems. Downloads of the CMS have grown 100% in the last six months, with over 7,500 downloads happening a week.

The recent event of the Microsoft Web Platform Installer (WPI) has proven a boon for Umbraco. It's currently listed as one of the most popular applications in the WPI gallery, with more than 36,000 downloads to date.

With the MS WPI you can easily get the CMS up and running. But once you get there, you've got some thinking and planning to do.

The Basic Story

Vendor  Umbraco
Product
 Umbraco v4.01
Product Category
 Web content management, simple web cms, web publishing
Typical Scenario
 basic websites, micro publishing websites
Bad Fit Scenario
Enterprises that want enhanced workflow without adding 3rd party provider, organizations without a development team with some intermediate to advanced .NET programming skills.

Company & Product History

The first version of Umbraco came out in 2001 and was built on ASP and COM. The first open source version arrived as a Beta 2 in October 2004 and was officially released in February 2005. That version was built on ASP.NET 1.1.

The Road to Open Source

Umbraco is the brain-child of Danish born Niels Hartvig. The original code was created to help him build web solutions for his clients — back when he had a freelance consulting business. Foreshadowing the future path for the project, Hartvig would often allow Umbraco to be used for free by other freelancers with whom he shared an office.

Hartvig found that by allowing others to use Umbraco, he was getting really good feedback and suggestions for improvements that he may not have gotten otherwise. The decision to go open source was not strategic, according to Hartvig, it just "felt right".

Not Meant to be Plug-and-Play

As we have said, Umbraco is not an out of the box solution in the sense that you can install it and with some minimal configuration and customization away you go. No. There's a little more to using this web content management system than that. And that is the way Hartvig likes it. You see, he doesn't believe in plug and play solutions. To him, organizations tend to focus more on the tools and not as much on their needs.

Hartvig believes that modular OOTB solutions lead organizations to think they have a common language when they really don't.

He offered an example of a company saying they wanted a forum. The consultant knew that software x had a forum, so they implemented it and gave the customer, so what the consultant gave them was a forum: http://forum.umbraco.org.

Unfortunately all the company really wanted was a simple way to communicate with their customers. Hartvig says that we spend too much time focusing on the technology of content management and not enough about understanding and defining the needs.

Once the organization truly understands their needs, Umbraco is there to meet them.

A Small but Evolving Company

Hartvig quit his consulting business in 2007 to do Umbraco full-time. There are 2.5 people in the company — active community member Per Ploug Hansen became a partner last year — building the software and training people to use it.

The latest version — 4.0.1 — was released in March.

There's a really great story behind how Umbraco went from being a little solution to help with the consulting business to being one of the most popular downloads on the Microsoft Web Platform Installer, but we really want to get to the meat of this review.

Market & Pricing

Umbraco is not actively marketed, it has evolved naturally. When asked what the target market was for Umbraco, Hartvig said that it was hard to place because it is free. He says it is attractive to smaller projects, but it isn't plug and play like Drupal or Joomla.

Used by skilled freelances for small projects, Umbraco also supports some fairly big sites like heinz.com, deanfoods.com, wired.co.uk and naias.com. 

Pricing

Umbraco is open sourced licensed under the MIT open source license.

There are two versions of Umbraco, free and professional. Both versions have the same core product. Professional comes with additional options like support and tools. There are several flavors of the Professional version as described in the figure below.

UmbracoVersions.jpg  UmbracoVersions2.jpg

Hartvig says that they hope 1% of their market will become customers by 2010, either as PRO subscribers or Umbraco.tv subscribers.

Umbraco Tools

Pro subscribers get a couple of tools that are good to have:

Umbraco Courier: Courier enables you to easy move your website from a staging environment to production. You can do things like deploy an entire website, sync up content between environments or add new functionality to a staging server.

Umbraco Concierge: Concierge shows developers what's installed and what's in use in their Umbraco implementation. It also monitors action handlers and registered third party applications so you know what is interfacing with the Umbraco event model.

Umbraco.tv

In addition to the Pro version, Umbraco also offers a subscription to Umbraco.tv, a website that contains over 6 hours of video tutorials that teach you the ins and outs of building Umbraco. There are videos for site builders, site developers, and soon, editors. New videos are added monthly and depending on the subscription you purchase, the videos are available for the iPod/iPhone.

Umbraco just came out with a new pricing model for Umbraco.tv: 19 EUR per month (~ US$ 25) for a single user personal license. This includes unlimited access to all the videos and source code to select videos. You can cancel the monthly subscription at any time. There's also a 12 month subscription for a single license and a business license. View the details here.

Key Features and Ratings

Core Technologies

Umbraco is a Microsoft.NET solution. It runs on Microsoft Windows Server 2003 and up against SQL Server 2005 or VistaDB.

Built on the .NET framework 2.0 and using ASP.NET 2.0 and C#, Umbraco supports .NET Custom Control and .NET User Controls without having to do anything special. Controls are added to Umbraco using Macros. It fully supports ASP.NET Ajax using jQuery, Prototype, MooTools or another Ajax toolkit.

It also fully supports ASP.NET Master Pages. XSLT is used for generating dynamic lists.

You have full access to the Umbraco API which includes over 15,000 lines of code. The API is well documented. The event model for the content engine is also exposed allowing you to automate tasks based on the actions of content editors.

Designing Templates/Look and Feel

Umbraco does not have a custom template engine, so you do not have learn a new templating language in order to create websites. This is a plus in our opinion. The Umbraco team believes there are better tools already out there, tools that designers know well and are comfortable using.

 

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