Will a CCMS help me implement DITA?
If you’ve heard anything about Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA), it’s probably been pure superlatives. Perhaps you’ve been told that DITA is easy to use (as it’s based on XML) and great for single-sourcing and content reuse. Or that it enables better collaboration and increases productivity. Or that it saves lives. And it’s all true! We write about it in our article about topic-based authoring. The thing is, if you have decided (or you’ve been advised) that you really should be implementing DITA then you are very likely going to need a set of tools to manage those DITA files.
Tools designed to exploit the benefits of the DITA framework are typically referred to as CCMS — Component Content Management Systems. If you thought getting your head around how to make the most of DITA was a challenge, unravelling the variety of CCMS available is a whole other world. But first, what is CCMS?
First, let us get the acronyms straight:
Contrary to what its beautiful acronym suggests, a good CCMS is much more than a CMS on steroids. It’s almost a different breed. The fundamental difference is that a CMS thinks in ‘pages’, whereas a CCMS thinks in ‘topics’ (components) — it’s for topic-based authoring (based on XML standards such as DITA).
Now that we know the meaning of CCMS, what does it do? It enables you to efficiently manage thousands of DITA files (or other XML files, such as S1000D or DocBook) and make sense of them by:
Sounds powerful, but what does CCMS mean for technical authors and your company?
A good CCMS lets you get the most out of DITA. It gives you tools to turn those noble DITA ideals (modularity, content reuse, extensive metadata, clear hierarchy, etc…) into reality.
DITA is useful for enforcing consistency and accuracy. When a CCMS kicks in, maintaining that consistency becomes easier. Why? Because you can see through any relationships between content elements (topics, variables, graphics) in seconds.
For example, let’s say you’ve got an image that needs to come with a few similar (but not identical) paragraphs, in a few different topics linked from a few unrelated DITA maps. Without a CCMS, to make sure there are no unintended discrepancies you’d need to manually identify the topics referencing the image, probably by opening each and every one of them in an XML editor. But with a CCMS, all you need to do is check the image file’s incoming links, and you are instantly aware of any relationships the file is bound up in. This way, it’s much easier to keep things in sight and under control.
Another one of the great CCMS benefits is traceability and version control. In large, dynamic content environments, tracing detailed changes back to the original source document can be both necessary and very difficult. With a good CCMS, it’s a breeze.
This relates to performing and storing regular data backups – a necessity in any serious content management environment. With a well-configured CCMS, backups happen safely and automatically in the background, while technical writers can focus on doing their job.
Everything has its downsides and using a CCMS is no exception.
First of all, in some cases, you can simply do without it. If you don’t need all the features a CCMS comes with, you can come up with individual workarounds for any functionality you need. For example, if all you need is version control — you can try GitHub or SVN. If all you need is automatically-generated output, try out Jenkins (start by checking out our blog post on automating documentation publishing with Jenkins). If all you need is file management — you may be just fine with organizing your topics into DITA maps, opening them in Oxygen and managing the files through Total Commander, Finder or Windows Explorer. In short, there are situations where using DITA is a great idea but using a CCMS is a step too far, simply because the project’s size doesn’t justify the effort.
It largely depends on individual circumstances, but using a CCMS in certain scenarios could potentially give you a headache:
The above difficulties may put you off, but it doesn’t mean that you should stay away from CCMS. What it means is that you need to be careful when making decisions about your content management setup. Analyse your needs and resources, weigh in all benefits and potential challenges, and don’t be afraid to ask experts for help — this may be the point when you need it the most.
If talking about potential problems didn’t scare you off, let’s have a quick, cursory look at some CCMS solutions, just to give you a glimpse of different options out there:
Spend another five minutes on digging deeper and you’ll soon find out there are dozens of DITA-optimised CCMS solutions on the market. They all differ in many respects and may or may not be well-suited for your particular needs.
Another alternative to traditional CCMS software could be MadCap Central (used together with MadCap Flare). It may not be a perfect match for DITA environments, but is still worth consideration (especially if you’re not 100% sure about implementing DITA yet). If this sounds like a viable option to you, make sure to read our review of MadCap Central.
At 3di, we’ve been using different CCMS software across different projects, and all of them have had their bright and dark sides (largely depending on meeting a given project’s specific needs). Still, we definitely haven’t used them all, so if you had the pleasure of working with any CCMS out there, let us know in the comments!
If you’re using DITA, the most probable answer would be: yes. Usually, it’s nearly impossible to manage large DITA repositories without a CCMS of one sort or another.
That said, to avoid or minimise the impact of the potential problems we mentioned above, you need to make smart choices when choosing the right tool for the job. There are many factors to consider, such as the volume of your documentation repository, the size of your documentation team, your current content management processes, available resources, the need for performing and storing backups, and plenty of other aspects you need to take into account.
If you feel you could use an expert hand with making the right decision, why not contact us here? At 3di, we’ve made such choices many times before and we’re always glad to help!