Open Source Content Management: The DNN Platform

DNN Logo

How do you use Microsoft and Open Source in the same sentence without creating an oxymoron? Answer: talk about the application, not the technology stack that runs it. The application is DotNetNuke, also known as the DNN Platform and Evoq. Originally bundled with the first release of Visual Studio .NET as a sample project, the “IBuySpy” portal has taken on a life of its own as DotNetNuke. Ten years, 7 million downloads and one million web sites later we have a thriving open source community.

DNN is a portal for capturing and presenting web content. It provides a standardized framework for managing security, user access and page layout, and a set of modules that deliver discrete functions within each page. Skins can be applied to the portal or to individual pages in order to customize look and feel. The portal is distributed free of charge in a Community edition that comes with a basic set of modules and skins. An extended set of modules and a package of training and support services are provided for a fee in the Professional ($3,500 US) and Enterprise ($8,500 US) editions.

Installation

Having worked with DNN in the past for a couple of intranet sites, I was curious to see what it looks like today so I downloaded and installed the community edition. The first thing I noticed is that since the last time I installed a DNN site the installation package had morphed into two different packages. The standard installer is intended for a production site where both IIS and SQL Server are already installed. The all-in-one installer (which I chose) uses Microsoft WebMatrix to download and install everything needed for an evaluation site. The process was well-documented and (mostly) uneventful; I had my evaluation site up and running in less than an hour.

Site Design and Management

Modules are a powerful feature of the DNN plarform  for packaging and presenting content. Each module delivers a specific kind of content (e.g., announcements, images, events, documents) to a single page or across all pages in the site. The community edition comes packaged with an introductory set of modules for managing text, images and lists. If the feature you want isn’t there, chances are that you can find it in the DNN store, from an independent 3rd-party vendor or on CodePlex. Many modules are free, while others are priced anywhere from $50 – $2,000. To build my evaluation site I downloaded several free modules from CodePlex and found the installation process to be simple and straightforward.

One of the things that I have always liked about DNN is the way that design and administration functions are integrated into the same interface as the web site itself. By signing in as an administrator I have access to an office-like ribbon that lets me manipulate all aspects of the site layout and content. Adding a page to a site is a simple, one-click operation that opens a dialogue where I can specify high level information about the page and where it fits in the menu hierarchy. Once the page has been created I can add functionality to display different kinds of content by simply dragging a module from the ribbon to a zone on the page. Once on the page the module has a local menu for adjusting settings and an edit function for adding content.

Evaluation

Against my selection criteria, I found that the Announcements, Form and List and Events modules provided strong capabilities for managing custom lists and other content types that support team collaboration and basic project management. Document management with the free documents module was disappointing. Although it was easy enough to upload documents to the site, the only interfaces for retrieving them was a simple list. Adding folders to the list improved the ability to navigate a medium sized document collection, and the tags feature (combined with a managed list) did enable me to search for documents using a standardized vocabulary of search terms. Still, the concept of a managed document repository with flexible search and retrieval capabilities just isn’t there: no version control, no check-in /check-out and no approval mechanism. This is a limitation that others have recognized, and modules like Document Exchange have been created (~$500) to enable document management capabilities that approach what a SharePoint user would take for granted.

There is plenty to like about DNN. IT support teams tend to like it because it uses familiar server technologies. Any organization that has already adopted Microsoft SQL server and IIS will find DNN to be easy to install and support. Business users like DNN because they can take full ownership of capture and presentation of the information that matters to them. Both small and large organizations like DNN because it provides an inexpensive platform for building web sites that are rich in content, easy to navigate and scalable to a wide range of needs. If those seem like a good fit with your criteria then DNN is worth a close look. On the other hand, if you’re looking for extensive document management or work flow functions you may decide to keep looking.

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