Creating a Monster: What Making Fae Taught Us About Choosing a CMS

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Behind every viable, modern website is a content management system (“CMS”) — technology that helps administer ongoing updates that extend the useful life of your website.

Your customers will never see your CMS. But it can have profound impact on their experience with your brand. It can significantly influence the workload in creating your website or application, and in making sure your site (and therefore, your brand) doesn’t erode under the pressures of upkeep.

We’ve learned a lot about CMS’s over the years. And what we’ve learned is on display in Fae, the technology we use to create most FINE sites today. Fae’s mission is to wreak havoc on onerous CMS platforms and feeble brand websites; to improve the Internet, one brand at a time. To that end, we’re setting Fae free, open sourcing the technology and (written below) much of the wisdom that inspired it.


What We’ve Learned
We’ve been making websites for about as long as anyone’s been making websites. We’ve trialed-and-errored myriad platforms and technologies from fully custom, to off-the-shelf. We won’t name names, or try and break down all of the technology choices you have. But setting aside licensing and fee concerns, the three major flaws we found in most of the fully-baked platforms are that they:

  1. force you to conform to their structure, therefore restricting customized brand experience, and
  2. involve more work in integration and workflow training than the work involved in creating a custom CMS from scratch.
  3. make you micro-manage content page-by-page instead of macro-manage content objects that appear in multiple places

These three things are critical for clients - if you’re adopting a CMS that limits your ability to differentiate, and one that is costly to customize and maintain, it’s the worst of both worlds. At the same time, re-inventing a custom CMS for every instance is laborious and inefficient. So our quest has been the balance of creating an engine that offers some efficiencies in deployment, while not handcuffing our creative process. It only took about 20 years to get it just right.

Enter: Fae
As we thought back to all of our trials and tribulations, we knew a few key things were critical to us in a CMS, because they’re critical to our clients as brands. If we were going to have a CMS, it would be the core UI of a CMS that meets 5 requirements we think benefit our clients at the highest level wherever it goes:

  1. flex to fit a wide variety of front-end designs across brands and industries
  2. be free of onerous licensing charges and contracts
  3. centrally manage object-oriented content, not page-by-page
  4. plug and play with an easy client workflow, requiring little training
  5. manual override with the ability to radically overhaul the base system where something even more custom is needed

That’s the conceptual DNA that created Fae—an open source, Rails-based CMS for websites and applications. Technically, it’s a “gem,” which means it’s more of a module that helps to spawn, customize, and continuously upgrade website CMS’s than it is an “off-the-shelf” CMS platform.

After a decade of exploring different application frameworks across multiple programming languages, we developed a preference for Ruby on Rails. It’s become the programming language of choice for the world’s leading open source developers because it’s a simple, elegant solution that’s been proven and production tested—mature rather than bleeding edge. In other words, something reliable that preserves standards.

Features. Or, “Faetures.”
When it comes to features, we’ve always advocated 80/20 thinking. Many platforms make it conceivable to handle any task you can conceive, but aren’t particularly great at any of them. We focus on expertly handling the things that brands must tackle most frequently and to most effect. Beyond all the basics to get you up and running, we defined a set of Faetures that are readily customizable and make the job of creating and maintaining your brand site easy, like:

  • Global Search - The ability to jump directly to any object or navigation item, throughout the CMS.
  • Complete Data Flexibility - Nothing need be pre-assumed about content needs, it’s all about the quality of execution and strategy and the data management and business rules follow.
  • Filtering, Sorting, and Pagination - Easily filter rows and sort columns of any list view with Fae’s filter helpers. Paginate long lists. Navigate to the content you want, faster.
  • Ordering - Objects with a position attribute are orderable in list view by default, offering the flexibility to update rank position.
  • Change Tracker - Changes are tracked by default, visible in the form view or activity log. See who does what, when.
  • Cloning - Clone repeatable items without repeating past work.
  • System of UI Components - support dozens of field types, page structures, list functions and workflows to cover the majority of content management needs.
  • Automatic Slugs - Automatically create slugs based on content from one or more other fields in a form.
  • Language Navigation - Manage content in multiple languages. Toggles language-specific fields and remembers your selection across the admin.
  • Image Uploader and Processing - Built-in image and file uploader to easily create multiple versions or sizes (to support responsive sites and site performance).


Open Sourcery: Fae Heads are Better than One
Perhaps mostly importantly, we believe in open source. One reason is obvious - it’s free of license fees and you aren’t “locked in” by onerous contracts or terms. You have an extended universe of people with the skillset to help you maintain these technologies. But it’s more than that; when an application is open sourced, it means a large community of developers is contributing to its improvements, additions, fixes. It adds up to a larger and more motivated group of contributors than you’d often find working on a single platform. With Fae, we’re actively engaging developers to contribute to the benefit of all. It's like FINE’s credo - “Bring Friends.”


Some of Our Faevorites
Perhaps the greatest test of a CMS is whether it’s tested - can you point to real-world deployments that reflect the brand sensibility you seek? You’d be surprised at how many big-name, grandiose-sounding CMS’s have very little real-world adoption. If you press for examples, you’ll get a handful of obscure, workaday brands being used as case studies to “sell” a platform. But Fae’s not a product we made and now are trying to sell at scale - it’s a technology we iterated over 2 decades and now we’re setting it free. It’s evolved, so your brand can, too. It’s a proven CMS that’s being used to dozens of diverse brand sites, like PAE Engineers, Silverado Resort, Realm Cellars, TA Associates, SERA - the list is long and starts on our website.


Make Your Monster
These are the things that led us to make and release Fae. If you’re a client, we’ll likely use Fae to make your site so that we can focus on your brand and data requirements, not some unwieldy technology. If you’re a developer, maybe you’ll be using Fae to create your own monster. You can see more details on our Fae website, download your own version, or tour some of the world-class websites built by on Fae.

Just as a website is a brand’s expression, the system it’s built on should be expressive. And in our case, a three-headed, formidable beast of an ally.

Read what Techcrunch has to say about Fae.

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