ExpressionEngine2 the web development platform I’ve been looking for

ExpressionEngine2 the web development platform I’ve been looking for

Opensource, paid, and custom CMS solutions abound. I know. I’ve used many solutions and even built my own. But I’ve found my new love…ExpressionEngine2.

Don’t get me wrong…I’ve pined to use ExpressionEngine (EE) for a while now….

For a long while, we’ve been building our sites in a hybrid off-the-shelf solution - extended through custom programming. But it was running under Microsoft’s ASP. Not ASP.NET, but ASP classic. It worked fine…after all the programming language is still capable. But we yearned to switch to PHP/MySQL for a long while. You’d think we’d switch to .NET, but it’s overhead requires too much Microsoft technology (e.g., VisualStudio)...and well, we’re Apple guys. So we wanted to keep using Macs without having to run Windows in a virtual machine. Plus PHP/MySQL seems to have more going for it overall.

Which brings me back to ExpressionEngine2. We’ve looked at it for sometime. In fact, we built our own custom CMS on it’s open source code base - CodeIgnitor. But recently, we decided, building and maintaining our own CMS wasn’t something we wanted to continue. So we started looking at what was available. What were our options.

ExpressionEngine2, Drupal, Wordpress, etc.

Of course we looked at the big open source solutions. Drupal and Wordpress seem to be the darlings of web development. However, while both are powerful and excellent web development platforms - Drupal’s power comes with a cost. It’s complex and has a steep learning curve. Wordpress also suffers from a learning curve, but it’s real shortcoming is its blogging heritage. It’s coming closer to being a full fledged CMS solution - but it still has more growing up to do. Also, both Drupal and Wordpress come with one benefit that we actually view as a drawback. Their heavy reliance of complex templating systems and their desire to provide one-click theme updating means you’re bound to a rigid syntax for your templates. And personally, I wasn’t a fan of integrating PHP into my template - if it’s at all possible to avoid it.

The winner for us…and my new web development love…ExpressionEngine2

I’ll admit it, EE2 had the edge in our hearts already. After all, since we were familiar with EE2’s code base CodeIgnitor, it had a leg up. But what really sealed the deal for us was how it handles templates and its tag syntax. Essentially, when you create a template file in EE2 it’s blank - yup, it’s just a blank page waiting for code. You can throw whatever you’d like at it. Then you start to add EE2 tags and normalize your templates with “snippets or include files” to create flexible and powerful websites.

Basically, we were able to adapt our typical way of working to EE2 very quickly. We start with our design, then once approved, we build static html/css pages for viewing and approval. Then in the past, we’d start to add code and split out common code bits to create include files (when using ASP). Well the same is possible with EE2. We simply create template pages for each of our sections and pages - then saved those templates to disk and started to slice up our html and add EE2 tags. It was so easy to adapt that we had our first EE2 site built very quickly. 

EE2 Add-ons, modules, etc.

The nice thing is that EE2 has a fairly big development community. No, not as big as Drupal or Wordpress, but we were able to find add-ons and plugins that helped us speed and automate many parts of web development. Sure, we could have built our own plugins and add-ons, which we might do in the future, but when many of the add-ons are free or cheap - why spend the time to develop our own. I mean we found a fantastic plug-in from : CE Image that automatically replaces images with sharpen, pre-sized versions. It makes the site faster and simplifies the admin side for the user - they can simply upload their image and know it’ll look crisp and good on the other side. The add-on is $15.00. You can’t beat that….well I guess you could if it were free. But I mean really, $15.00 isn’t going to break the bank.

Custom vs open source CMS?

In a previous blog, “Open source CMS system or custom built, standards-compliant CMS - which is better?” I discussed my thoughts on open source versus custom development. Well with ExpressionEngine2 we’ve discovered the best of both worlds. You can build within EE2’s framework - in fact - you can build everything within the admin if you want - or you can extend EE2 as much as you’d like. But the best part, you can be up and running quickly - since the syntax is fairly clear. That is, you can learn the basics of EE2 quickly and build a website without having to learn any PHP or dig deeply into the EE2 or CodeIgnitor guts. But the ability to do so is there, at your finger tips when you need it.

ExpressionEngine2 is a commercial product.

Open source supporters might poo poo EE2 since it’s a commercial product. It’s basic license is $299.95. But I see this as a benefit. For one, you can get support from the EE2 crew - and of course from the development community too. And I like solutions that come with support. I like to be able to contact the company and get answers quickly. And $300 isn’t expensive to invest in a flexible and robust web development platform. And with the few extensions we found to ease our efforts - it ended up being under $700 invested. And I’m sure as we delve deeper into EE2 and the community - we’ll find free or more affordable solutions. But for now - that’s money well spent to us.

I’m looking forward to building our future sites in EE2. In fact, we’re so pleased with ExpressionEngine we now we want to rebuild our own recently relaunched site in EE2 as well. But that’ll have to wait for now. We’re too busy working on other sites.

Mar 08, 2012

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