Monolithic Content Management

When I was writing about the redesign of, I mentioned that I needed to write an essay here about "monolithic vs. micro (kernel) approaches to content management." Referencing an old (and mostly settled) debate in operating system design [1], think it might be productive to bring some of these systems design perspectives to the problem of content management systems for websites.

The analogy is imperfect for a lot of reasons, because it can operate on two basic levels. The most direct level would be the software itself. Is the content management system (CMS; software) modular. If the database driver doesn't work with the system you want to use can you change it? If you don't like the template engine is it a simple matter to replace it? If you need additional functionality can you drop in modules or plug-ins to provide these features?

In truth most systems are at least a little hybrid/microkernel-ish in their approach. Wordpress is pretty monolithic on the whole, but it provides a lot of access via the plugin system. While Drupal is very modular/microkernel, it still has a lot of functionality in the core system (and de facto core modules) that shape the way that most Drupal sites are developed. b2 and greymatter were almost entirely monolithic. I guess MediaWiki has some modularity, but it strikes me as a pretty monolithic system. And so forth.

The less direct level, would be the relationship between what the content management system can provide and the website as a whole. Does the content management system handle all of the content internally, or does the system only handle one aspect of content, like a blog or a wiki? For the record I don't think interactions/relationships between these two levels are particularly important. and Critical Futures are both very monolithic sites--maybe a better term for this is monolithic architecture. This is to say that the entire content of the site is stored in the database and managed by the system. Monolithic architectures seem to be the preference these days: Drupal prefers these kinds of designs, and I think for a lot of sites, "single system" has some appeal, particularly if there's a large editorial staff, or a desire to avoid editorial bottlenecks, as single systems make this a bit easier.

At the same time--though unpopular--I'd like to suggest that monolithic architecture might not be the best solution for all sites across the board. Why? Because it leads to more complex and abstracted tools which are harder for people to customize, and it makes it more likely that people will be forced into using a tool that almost does what they need that works with their chosen platform, rather than a tool that really does what they need but doesn't work with their platform. Also monolithic architectures lead to a very non-UNIX-ish approach to software tools, when that might be more appropriate.

To be clear, I think there are a lot of situations and individuals/organizations that do benefit from very monolithic site architectures (and users that benefit from monolithic tools), but it's a decision that shouldn't be made lightly, nor should people who build websites (myself included) assume that "the more content you put in a system" the better the system is.



[1]As I understand it, the debate is: micro kernels have sophisticated and elegant designs, that are highly modular and flexible, but suffer from poor performance (increased communications overhead) and more places where fault can occur (as there are more "places"). In contrast, monolithic kernels are "old school" and not innately flexible or modular, but they're fast, and once sufficiently developed, they either work well or they don't work at all. The design difference is that monolithic kernels provide all sorts of services (networking, file systems, display drivers) themselves in their own "space," while micro-kernels just handle the lowest level internally and rely on other programs to do things like networking, and file systems, and device drivers. As I understand it.
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