Sunday, September 8, 2013

The lesson of databases: use only when necessary

The current CIDM newsletter has an article about content management systems: Why do organizations hate their content management system?

The article is scathing about companies that make bad purchasing decisions, and scathing about CMS vendors that make difficult, bloated products.

But the article is missing something important. The fact is that relational databases are notoriously difficult to use. I spent over ten years documenting databases, so I've seen some of the messy innards first hand. You don't just buy an RDBMS and then figure out how to use it. You need Database Administrators with a lot of skills. You need to make an ongoing investment of money and time just to keep the thing working.

When I worked in the IT department of a large financial firm, there was a prohibition on databases. We used Excel in very sophisticated ways. We transferred millions of text files a night. But we avoided RDBMSs at all costs. Apparently the company had been burned badly by a database implementation and was unwilling to try again.

The CMSs used by doc teams present extra challenges. At one DITA shop where I worked, our CMS vendor decided to deprecate documentation use of their CMS and end support for our application of it. That meant that we had to spend an enormous amount of time and expense to choose a new CMS and get it set up. The cost must have been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, none of which was figured into the initial ROI for moving to DITA (which we had done just a couple of years before).

I would admonish documentation departments to avoid using a CMS unless they really need it. As with DITA, it makes no sense to take on the enormous expense, steep learning curve, extra manpower requirements, and ongoing hassles - unless you really need it. "Really needing it" means that simpler options won't work for you. The complexity of reuse in most doc departments doesn't come close to justifying the enormous expense.