16 minute read.

15 free CMS options for Web Design Professionals Reviewed

Paul Anthony / May 17, 2008

Posted in: Archive

At the center of most (if not all) web development projects is the old chestnut we call content management systems. Choosing a CMS for your website, or indeed for your enterprise is no easy task – in Europe alone, you have around 500 systems to choose from. Whether that system is something complex or something simple (i.e. hand editing), it is an essential part of a successful site. Enabling content editors to perform website updates (however inexperienced) with the web has always been something of a challenge for developers, thankfully there are a number of platforms and open source projects out there which take the hassle out of developing your own system, and can put you in the running for projects normally outside of your scope. The following hopefully provides a comprehensive overview of some of the best out there, and we’ve tried to be as comprehensive in our review of each.

Impress CMS

Technology : PHP
RDMS: a MySQL (others are planned)
Setup time: 10 minutes
Supported OS: Unix / Windows, MacOS


  • Flexible group-based permission system
  • Fully module-based
  • Built-in cache system

URL: http://www.impresscms.org


I’ve recently come across an impressive contender that I’ve had to add to the list.  ImpressCMS is a fairly recent fork of Xoops, the project has managed to impress both the audience and the jury, resulting in the winning spot on the Most Promising Open Source CMS awards 2009.

Installation is a breeze, just complete a few fields on a web form and your new site is ready to go.  Designers will love the theme and template system, and the bundled jQuery javascript library makes some nifty visual effects possible.

Where the core provides the basics, the bells and whistles reside in the installable modules. With 200 of them available at the moment of writing, there will surely be a module that caters to your needs. If that shouldn’t be the case, adapting an existing module or starting a new one from scratch is made painless thanks to stellar support on the community forums and imBuilding, a module to build modules.

Typo 3

Technology : PHP Supported
Setup time: 45 minutes+
Supported OS: Windows / Unix / MacOSX


  • On page editing
  • Intuitive Tree Structure for pages , folders and files
  • Internal Search Engine

URL: http://typo3.com

Typo 3 screen

If you are looking for power over simplicity then Typo 3 is one such option. Starting out with TYPO3 does require time and dedication, both from an administrative point of view. End users can expect to spend around 45 minutes plus to get up and running with the admin tools, depending on how IT literate they are at the minute. To take advantage of its full power, you will need to get your reading glasses out. Admins are going to get it tough, there is significant documentation – 1600 (and counting) pages of references and tutorials, and you are going to have to read at least some of it. However there is no question forum on their website, which you would expect from an Open source solution such as this. On the plus side, the features this product offers are second to none, and are continuing to grow through the PHP development community, and some of the clients using this include large brands such as Philips and the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago.

Cushy CMS

Technology : Browser Based (PHP engine)
Setup time: 5 minutes+
Supported OS: N/A – hosted


  • On page editing
  • Extremely Simple

URL: http://www.cushycms.com/

cushy cms

If Typo 3 is the Rolls Royce of the CMS world, then Cushy CMS has got to be a Mini. A fluffy Light and Small web 2.0 application this CMS is one of the easiest and quickest to get up and running with, although it is strictly a hosted solution, and to run it you need to provide your FTP details through Cushy’s website. In order to set the system up you simply add css styles to the sections which need changed, Cushy then changes the page on the fly, and sends it back to the ftp server itself. I would be a little worried about the security implications of passing FTP details over cleartext, and it obviously has to keep a hold on your passwords *somewhere* on its own server..which in my opinon is a bit of a risk. From their own website: “CushyCMS accesses and stores sensitive website login data as part of its daily operations. While we will take every reasonable precaution to secure these details (including the use of database data encryption), we will not accept any responsibility or liability for actions that may result from this data being intercepted or accessed by an unauthorized third-party.” In other words, if it all goes Pear shaped “We aint takin no responsibility “. None the less, this does seem to be a good concept for breaking things down to a simple level, my fear is that it is too simple. This current version will not enable content editors to add a new page – for that, they will have to go back to their webdesigner.

Made By Frog

Technology : PHP
RDMS: a MySQL database or SQLite 3
Setup time: 45 minutes+ Supported OS: *Nix (Apache)


  • On page editing
  • Simple Philosophy
  • Add pages & Images
  • Extendable, includes an API
  • Uses Templating Code.

URL: http://www.madebyfrog.com/

frog cms

Created as a PHP port of Radiant CMS (Ruby on Rails app), Frog CMS carries the motto “Fast and Simple”. And it stands up to the test – we found that it took up quite a bit smaller memory footprint than the Ruby equivalent. The learning curve (provided you know a bit about PHP) is also relatively fast, and you can be up and running with a content managed solution in as little as 45 minutes. Complimenting the main site is a support forum, and good clear documentation. However if you are a complete PHP newbie, this one probably is still a bit involved, and although it uses a templating system, it will still prove to be a pain to implement – say over something like WordPress. We also found that the download on their site was corrupt, and had to grab it via Tortoise SVN. We would say to stick out at it though and you will be rewarded in what is an extremely well put together Open Source CMS.

Radiant CMS

Technology : Ruby On Rails
RDMS: MySQL database, PostReSQL, SQLite3
Setup time: 45 minutes+
Supported OS: *Nix (Apache)


  • Elegant user interface
  • Flexible templating with layouts, snippets, page parts, and a custom tagging language
  • Simple user management and permissions

URL: http://www.radiantcms.com/

This is the product that inspired Frog CMS, and it has pretty much the same layout and feel as Frog, only that it is a Ruby on Rails app. The community around Radiant however does feel to be much more active, and if that is your bag, and you are a Ruby developer, then this is the CMS for you. Thankfully developers have started to break down the barriers to entry for content management systems, and the newer ones such Radiant have concentrated heavily on making things much more friendly for both the end user and web designers. The custom tagging langugage (Radius) is also particularly nice in this system, and should be a breeze for anyone who has done any Ruby work to pick up.

Modx CMS

Technology : PHP
RDMS: MySQL database
Setup time: 45 minutes+
Supported OS: *Nix (Apache)


  • Strong Web Standards Support
  • Web 2.0 Features
  • Graphical Installer

URL: http://modxcms.com/

The MODx Ajax CMS and PHP Application Framework brings plenty to the table, with as it is a application framework, not only is ModX a CMS, but it is a Web application builder as well, supporting forms creation amongst other things. The templating language for ModX is particularly simple to get to grips with tags placeholders which are easily to integrate. ModX also has a strong focus towards two things close to my heart – search engine optimisation and Web Standards. Its no surprise then that ModX came out winner in the Most Promising Open Source Content Management System of 2007, holding off strong competition from SilverStrip, Nuke Evolution, Typolight and dotCMS – all reviewed here. “MODx is the alternative to hacking blogging tools and other tools to death, extended learning curves, and changing your workflow to fit software that just doesn’t quite “get it”. MODx allows you to focus on usability, design, content and building great sites, not on the tools that build them.”


Technology : PHP
RDMS: MySQL database
Setup time: 30 minutes+
Supported OS: Windows/Linux/Mac


  • Online image editor
  • Widgets
  • User Defined Forms
  • Search Engine Optimised
  • Windows and PHP installer.
  • Version Control

URL: http://www.silverstripe.com
SilverStripe is an open source product born out of an existing closed source one. The small New Zealand based company decided last year to offer its innovative CMS to customers free, and as a result has achieved over 100,000 downloads of the system. And its no surprise why. SilverStripe is WordPress on steroids, and because it is completely tailored towards content management, and not blogging, (although it can do this too) you wont be disappointed with the features. SilverStripe shinks (uploaded) images on the fly, has support for drafts and preview, allows users to review and roll back (version control) and has support for SEO out of the box (including URL rewriting). Its target market – is somewhere between WordPress users and Mambo or Drupal which is perfect for the small to mid-sized development team. The companies credentials are also sound – Just last it achieved support from Google – in the form of Google’s summer of code 2007. Recently Sun did a bit of a case study on them too. We are keeping a close eye on this badboy.


Technology : JSP
RDMS: MySQL 5, Oracle 10
Setup time: 15 minutes+
Supported OS: Red Hat Enterprise, Sun Solaris 10, Windows Server 2003


  • Enterprise Level solution
  • Micro Sites
  • WebDAV / LDAP Authentication
  • Version Control
  • Convert PDF to Text via upload
  • Version Control

URL: http://www.alfresco.com

As an enterprise solution I expected this to be a typical “community” edition, pushing a closed source version with additional features at a premium. Not so with Alfresco, the only difference being the level of support your receive from the team. Installing Alfresco is a breeze, with database setup and other configuration done for you after answering a few questions – I had my test setup running on a Windows 2003 Server in about 15 minutes. Dropping different types of document into folders (spaces) generates new content on the site, and when combined with rules, enables web publishers to use PDF’s directly as web content. They would appear at first glance to be going after the Microsoft Sharepoint market, however compared to commercial content management and portal offerings, Alfresco lacks advanced workflow tools.


Technology : PHP
RDMS: MySQL starting from 4.1, MySQLi, Oracle, MSSQL, PostgreSQL, Sybase
Setup time: 5-10 minutes+
Supported OS: Windows (IIS) / *Nix (Apache)

URL: http://www.typolight.org/


  • Modular – easy to Extend
  • MVC architecture
  • Form generators
  • Calendar/events
  • Newsfeeds

Once you begin working with Typolight, you will realise that the capabilities of the product out of the box are extremely impressive. There is alot more functionality when comparing to other CMS systems out there, but fortunately aren’t so many features as to overpower the end user or administrators with them. User rights are extremely flexible where you can specify which user gets access to editing which field, which is refreshing compared to say Joomla, which guesses more at user access levels. The system also generates valid XHTML, and WAI accessible code, which is an added bonus.


Technology : J2EE/Java
RDMS: MySQL, Postgresql, MSSQL or Oracle.
Setup time: 60 minutes+
Supported OS: Windows or UNIX servers


  • Site-wide Templating
  • Streaming MP3 Player
  • Content Relationships
  • Inline Content Editing
  • Content versioning

URL: http://www.dotcms.org

FEATURE URL: http://www.dotcms.org/the_dotcms/features.dot

dotCMS is a portal-based Web Content Management System. It offers a compelling set of features out of the box all on an extensible platform that can be customized to suit just about any Web CMS need – all provided you know your JSP. dotCMS, has gone down the commercialisation route of offering “on-demand” installs. At first impressions, dotCMS’s admin screens appeared relatively complex- I didn’t automatically know where to go and what to do when I had logged in, and for that reason – regardless of the functionality it took some time to get to grips with.


Technology : ASP.NET (C#)
Setup time: 10 minutes+
Supported OS: Windows


  • Super simple template engine
  • Full support for Ajax frameworks like Script.aculo.us or ASP.NET Ajax
  • Scheduled publishing
  • Support for any .NET Language including C# and VB.NET

URL: http://www.umbraco.org

If you are a Microsoft aficionado, you will be quite aware that open source projects on the .NET platform are few and far between. The same is true with CMS systems, with (to my knowledge) only DotNetNuke, and Umbraco contending for the position of best ASP.NET open source content management solution. It’s a further bonus to discover that not only is umbraco open source, but its also an awesome, well built piece of software. As with most CMS systems being developed now, Umbraco is too committed to webstandards, and indeed has focused on provding at platform to achieve perfect CSS and XHTML zen. It utilises XSLT to style content, so a knowledge of this would be an advantage – although its not a necessity. We were up and running within about 10 minutes – the .NET installer script setting up the database etc, all we had to do was set some bits and pieces in IIS. If you are a .NET developer – go grab a copy, as the user community has also achieved notarity- winning awards – you know that you’ll be backed up with exceptional support.

CMS Made Simple

Technology : PHP
Setup time: 15 minutes+
Supported OS: *Nix


  • Modular and extensible
  • Minimal server requirements
  • Small footprint
  • Content hierarchy with unlimited depth and size

URL: http://www.cmsmadesimple.org/


To get a site up with CMS Made Simple is just that, simple. For those with more advanced ambitions there are plenty of addons to download. And there is an excellent community at your service. The cms admin system is very clean – both from a code and design perspective. We found the learning curve quite gradual, which is an extremely important point in a CMS. The third party modules being developed add additional value to the project – with everything from E-commerce to core Translation.


Technology : PHP
Setup time: 45 minutes+
Supported OS: *Nix and Windows


  • Friendly URLs
  • Modules & Support
  • Personalisation

URL: http://drupal.org/

Unlike Mambo, it is easy to hack the templates, layout, menus and navigation of a Drupal site, which make it the perfect system for developers and designers alike. It’s architecture is somewhat difficult to get to grips with, and this is made no easier with its own jargon throughout the documentation – but when you bite through its tough exterior, Drupal is an extremely juicy fruit in the middle – and its juice definitely worth the squeeze. The search engine optimisation support is second to none, with super friendly URL’s – which is what you would expect from a system of this size. Primarily Drupal’s strength lies in its user contributed modules allowing you to extend functionality by easily installing the functionality required. At time of writing there were over 3500 user contributed modules on the site.


Technology : PHP
Setup time: 35 minutes+
Supported OS: *Nix and Windows


  • Page caching
  • Content macro language (mambots)
  • visitor statistics
  • Voting / Polls
  • Internationalisation

URL: http://www.mamboserver.com/

First impressions with Mambo is that its interface is very clean and usable, however development of the system has been somewhat overtaken, by Joomla. For the un-initiated, Joomla is a fork of the main mambo trunk, and some of the leads development team left to set up Joomla. Fast forward a few years, and Joomla wins last year’s Open Source awards. Anyway, politics aside, the system is still of Enterprise Quality, and extremely feature rich. It can be easily configured to allow registered users to log in and edit pages via the web, as we would expect the tools made available for authors are straightforward and require little or no training. From a developer perspective, some decent documentation is available at http://docs.mamboserver.com/.

Well with over 500 CMS systems out there…we couldn’t review them all. But if there isn’t anything in here to meet your needs, maybe some of these will. If there are any we have missed here let us know..Feel free to comment.


Technology : PHP
Setup time: 10 minutes+
Supported OS: Windows / Unix / MacOSX

URL: http://hotarucms.org

SUPPORT FORUM: http://forums.hotarucms.org/

Born from developers disgruntled by the limitations of existing social bookmarking platforms, the core of Hotaru CMS provides a stable framework comprising an administration and maintenance panel, plugin management system and function libraries. Installation is a simple 4 step process which creates the database structure and an administrator account. As a completely modular, plugin-based CMS, all further functionality can then be added by using the freely available plugins.

The plugins are available in easy to install packs that fit the purpose of creating a particular type of site. One such pack is the set of social bookmarking plugins, which extend the Hotaru base to create a Digg-style community site. You can choose to install one of these packs or to pick and choose plugins to create the functionality you desire.

Templating is kept simple and modular in a fashion inspired by WordPress with the aim of the themes being easy to customise. Default templates are provided for all plugins, which can be styled with CSS or copied in to your theme folder to be tweaked and extended.

With dozens of built-in class libraries and popular 3rd party ones such as ezSQL, htmLawed, Inspekt, JSMin, TimThumb and SimplePie all included, Hotaru CMS provides a framework which can be readily be extended to create all manner of sites.

Some of the best of the rest..

For Blogging..And CMS.


Just CMS


Comprehensive List of CMS systems

p.s. Have you seen our Email Marketing systems review? We think you’ll love that post as well. Go check it out.

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