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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Radiant CMS

I just redesigned my web site and coded it up using Radiant CMS, a Rails-based Content Management System. I'm pleased with the result but the process was not totally pain-free. So here are some thoughts on the system that might be helpful to others.

Although Radiant is built with Rails, you are not coding up pages in Views like a regular application. Instead you use the Admin interface to your site and create pages using a web form. Those pages are stored in a database. You can code in regular HTML, Markdown, Textile, etc. Using a web browser is convenient but I found it tedious to edit compared to a real editor like Emacs or TextMate. In particular I missed the ability to quickly jump between pages and to search for text across all pages.

I made the mistake of starting with their example web site and morphing it to the one I wanted. Next time I would start with a blank site and build out my pages from scratch.

Radiant's documentation is bad - sorry, but it is. They really need getting started guides that explain how you really go about building a modest site - something more than the equivalent to 'hello world'. The system includes a range of Radiant tags which allow you to loop through, for example, news items, blog comments, etc. I used a few of these but not many. There are also a series of Radiant extensions for blog comments, slide shows, etc. The documentation on how to build these appears to be better than the core docs.

- Easy to install the code, whether or not you know Rails
- Web interface is simple once you get the hang of it
- You can code in Markdown, etc., not just HTML
- Extensions and Tags can save a lot of work
- Using a web interface makes it easier to collaborate with others

- Inability to edit pages directly is a pain if you are used to doing that
- The system expects you to know HTML and CSS, so it's not for complete novices
- Documentation is not good and needs more examples

Deploying the system to a hosted server (Slicehost) was fairly straightforward using Capistrano and Rake. But your server has to have MySQL and Rails installed. It could be useful to generate a version of the live site that consists of purely static pages.

Because it is Rails-based you can deploy Radiant sites to Heroku, which could be very useful for some users. I tried this and was almost successful. The deployment part was working after a few issues but it was screwing up pages due to a stupid CRLF (linefeed) translation problem. Heroku has the potential to make deployment very easy *but* it acts as a black box such that when something goes wrong you are out of luck. In my case Slicehost just seemed to be a better bet.


Jim Gay said...

Try "script/extension install help" and it'll give you some docs in the interface (http://github.com/saturnflyer/radiant-help-extension/tree/master)

There definitely needs to be more examples out there, but we'll be working on them.

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