SxSW 2009

In an Iron Chef-like match-up, a team of developers from Drupal (news, site), Joomla! (news, site) and WordPress (news, site) had 100 hours to build a website based on a specific list of specifications and design. Then representatives of each team got to meet face to face to show off their hard work during the South by Southwest Interactive festival in a session called "The Ultimate Showdown of Content Management System Destiny."

It was a battle to the end, with a mix of good humor and serious competition among developers from the open source web content management community.

How It Went Down

The room was packed full of CMS fans, with a heavy emphasis on WordPress. You could hear a small group of men chanting for their favorite CMS before the event got underway. The mood was festive, but there was an air of competition brewing as each person threw CMS taunts at each other.

The panelists included Steve Fisher (Joomla!), Colleen Carroll (Drupal), and Matt Mullenweg (WordPress) and were led by George DeMet of

DeMet came up with the idea and explained how each team of developers were given the task to build a website for a community leadership program in Elgin, Illinois. The developers were asked to use a number of web-based social networking and collaboration tools. The end goal was to build websites that were general enough to be able to be downloaded by organizations and communities to meet their needs. All of the specifications are available in a PDF format.

The teams were also expected to stay true to a site design created by Mark Boulton, who is well-known for his web design and book "Five Simple Steps: A Practical Guide to Designing for the Web." Developers could only use freely-available software to build the sites and function on a shared hosting space (Linux/Apache/MySQL).

A lot of time was spent talking about how the teams worked together on the site creation and the effort it took to build the sites. The Joomla! team never met face-to-face. Developers spanned across the globe and spent most development time talking over Skype or conference calls. The Drupal team started with a face to face sprint to get the site started and then they worked online to finish the rest of the work. You can follow how Mullenweg's WordPress team completed their tasks by visiting a site they built to keep up with the project.

How the Teams Compare

Here is a comparison of how the sites came together under deadline:

Total Hours79.2557.2590.5
Hours spent on front end21.751536.5
HTML ValidationNo (8 errors)YesNo (8 errors)
CSS ValidationNo (7 errors)No (1 error)No (21 errors)
Page weight180K140K154K
Lines of custom PHP/JS code220301,808

DeMet mentioned how most validation errors were minor. But Carroll said the Drupal Community learned a lot from the discovery of those errors and they were able to put in a number of new patches to help improve the overall CMS.

Mullenweg and Fischer said this project helped in similar ways. Mullenweg talked about how his team had a great time outside of the development by adding Zoolander-related content. The added fun was not a requirement. The Drupal and Joomla! teams added filler to populate their sites.

Learning Opportunities

No Live Demos, but Live User Experience

The crowd seemed pretty disappointed when it became clear there would be no live demonstrations of the websites. All of the sites can be viewed from the Ultimate Showdown of Content Management System Destiny website. They did get to hear reactions from Boulton and Senior Program Officer Marybeth Schroeder from the Evanston Community Foundation.

DeMet had worked with the organization before and used its needs to launch the competition in the first place. The crowd enjoyed watching her reaction as she looked through each version of the website. Schroeder had no CMS preference before looking at the sites, a perspective that was not easy to find in the SXSW session.

There was an attempt to record how she used each site. In one screen capture video, you could see her trying to figure out the WordPress dashboard. In the case of the Joomla! site, Schroeder had a hard time adding a location for an event. In the end, she ranked the Drupal site as her first pick followed by Joomla! and WordPress.

From the designer perspective, Boulton said he favored the WordPress and Drupal sites for how they stayed true to his design. He gave Joomla! a hit for not following all of his typography. Fisher countered that they made that decision because the Joomla! team didn't like it. Boulton did not say anything specifically about the usefulness or user experience of the sites.

And the Winner Is...

In what was expected to be a dramatic end to the competition, DeMet asked the crowd to vote on who should win. Many people yelled out how they felt they did not have enough knowledge of the sites to pick. Others yelled out the CMS they already supported. That indecisiveness led to a draw. DeMet announced all three CMS won and tried to figure out a way to share the belt-buckle award.

There may be no defined answer on what is the best open source CMS. It was clear this project helped motivate the open source communities to team together and come up with products that can help non-profits launch a website that meets their needs.

Each development team will make their work available for anyone to use. The Joomla! and WordPress teams even created help videos on the showdown website. The event at SXSW was also a great way to talk about CMS and get open source products more play among a large and growing population of tech-minded people who are looking for a new way to share information online.

DeMet plans to talk about the showdown again in April at a pre-conference event for the CMS Expo in Evanston, Illinois.