Moulting, Or, It Was Time to Change My CMS

July 20, 2011
Moulted Snake Skin – Image by Mylittlefinger

Image by Mylittlefinger

My move this summer from McMaster to McGill is requiring me to confront a lot of changes, not least in transferring my hefty digital footprint between institutions. Much like moving house, a digital move is an opportunity to purge a lot of unused and neglected stuff – but still, it’s time-consuming and not much fun. My domain ( is hosted commercially and actually doesn’t need to be moved, but I’ve been meaning to update the site for quite a long time, and this seemed like a natural time to do it.

I’ve been using Drupal for several years now and on the whole it has worked fine. I initially chose it as a content management system in part because I wanted to have the flexibility to use weird and wonderful modules and rendering engines – things that require new data tables and very fine-grained control over how content was prepared and displayed. When I moved from the University of Alberta to McMaster I was experimenting more with a combined research and teaching website, and what I really wanted was something between a Learning Management System (like Moodle) and a blogging system (like WordPress) – Drupal seemed to be a good solution.

But ultimately my teaching sites remained separate (for various reasons, including security, registrar integration, server capacity load with 450 first-year students, etc.), and my main/research site remained fairly simple. As a result, I kept feeling that Drupal was overkill for my non-teaching site, and – worse yet – that I was making unnecessary compromises in terms of the user interface and installation maintenance. I’ve always thought that updating a Drupal site was way more difficult than it should be, what with having to make a parallel installation and then porting over any customizations that had been made (over time I’ve learned to make as few of these as possible). And don’t get me started about plugins (which over time I’ve learned to keep as minimal as possible). The site administration and page/blog editing interfaces are powerful and flexible, but I usually want a butter knife, not a Swiss Army knife. Also, I’ve tried several styled editors in Drupal (after learning to avoid plugins that I used to favour, like one for using Textile syntax), but I usually encounter problems of some kind while editing (especially when flipping back and forth from code and visual modes). Yes, Drupal 7 seems to be have improved things considerably, but try as I might I couldn’t get my data to import from Drupal 6, neither through the automatic update mechanism nor through manual intervention. I’d still recommend Drupal in some circumstances, but for my main website, I’d decided I’d had enough.

I’ve used WordPress in various contexts over the years, and for relatively straightforward content management scenarios – in other words the vast majority of cases – I think it’s just a slicker solution, right from the moment you install it (WordPress had a web-based installation script long before Drupal and it really does takes about 5 minutes to install, much to the delight of my graduate students this past fall who each created their own instance). And though it’s arguably less flexible, WordPress does have a dizzying number of very useful plugins (but I’m avoiding those, remember?). But more importantly, it makes simple things simple, with a lot of attention to useful details (like autosave). I realize that taking sides between Drupal and WordPress is akin to arguing that there’s a best programming language, it’s basically troll bait.

Here are a few notes on the new site (subject to change at any moment, of course):

  • I’ve chosen the Magazine Basic theme that I first noticed here. I’m tempted to splurge for the premium Magazine Flow theme, but the basic one seems fine for now. Several colleagues I admire have opted recently for more minimalist skins (Bill, Steve, etc.), but I like this layout, even if it’s busier.
  • I’m slowly moving content manually from my old (Drupal) site to this one – every import/conversion script I tried failed, in part because I think my Drupal installation was in such a confused state.
  • The header logo contains a quick and dirty collage of some Voyeur Tools thumbnails, as taken from the TAPoR List of Tools.
  • The Wordle-like visualization is the Voyeur Cirrus tool – there’s actually a WordPress plugin that we’re working on for it, but… ahem, I had problems with it and just opted for the generic syntax: <iframe src="" width="100% height="450" /></iframe>
  • Speaking of iframes, I installed this plugin to make it easier to embed them in normal posts with the styled editor (rather than fiddle with configuration options that aren’t in the web-based interface and that could cause problems during an update).
  • Ok, I said I would try to avoid plugins, but I also installed the Twitter Tools plugin, in part to get my Twitter feed in the sidebar and in part to make it easier for me to send out a tweet when I post a message.
  • I’ve licensed the content with a very liberal BY (attribution) Creative Commons license, as I’ve been convinced by Bethany’s thoughts on the matter.

So, what do you think of the new look?

Old Website


New Website


One Response to Moulting, Or, It Was Time to Change My CMS

  1. kintopp on July 20, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    Looks good! If you’re still considering other (free) magazine style WordPress themes then is a reliably good source for overviews, best-of’s and so on (e.g. A year or so ago in Chicago I wrote up a “best of” guide for WP plugins and themes for an academic audience. It’s a bit outdated now and hasn’t been updated, but probably still useful: and then follow the “Extending your site” links in the sidebar.