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The Benefits of a Flat-File CMS: Management, Performance, Security

A flat-file CMS is a file-based content management system (CMS) that stores files and data in text files and folders rather than a database. The advantages for a relatively-simple website — such as a microsite or short-term, high-traffic campaign site —  is that it provides you with an easy-to-use site with excellent performance and security. There are times when having a stand-alone site to announce an initiative, advance a priority area, or publicize an important study or event can really help to strengthen your mission’s voice beyond your flagship website. In many cases, these stand-alone sites are a handful of pages or perhaps a  single-page interactive experience. The normal inclination might be to reach for commonly-used CMS solutions, such as Drupal, WordPress or Joomla. However, the installation or configuration of these more traditional solutions means spending more time with set-up than on the delivery of your message. For your next microsite or campaign, a flat-file CMS offers some key benefits to consider. Unlike traditional CMS which store content data in a database, a flat-file CMS saves your data as files (typically markdown files) and folders. Since there’s no database to query, pages load noticeably faster. And in addition to enhanced user experience, improved page speed will factor positively into SEO rankings to make sure your campaign or microsite gets the exposure it needs.  Other benefits include:
  • Simple user interface – Top flat-file CMSs have a simple intuitive user interface that is easy to use and set up, whether you are editing content or configuring a content type.
  • Security – Without the need for a database, you no longer have to query a database to load your page. And without a database to hack, there is no central location for information to be stolen.  
  • Version control – Since flat-file CMSs are not stored in a database and everything is file-based, this makes version control and sharing of documents easier. You can upload all files to Github, which will give you version control over every file and its history. This is ideal when collaborating and working with teams on the same source.
  • Low cost – Most flat-file CMSs are completely free (i.e., open source) and include free plugins you can download to support your site.
If you do have a new yet simple site to get up and running, your intuition is likely to use a platform that you already know very well. And while there are a lot of excellent open-source CMS platforms to choose from (e.g., WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla), a site that does not have an overly-complex content model or require complex relationships, may not need a full CMS with all its functionalities, most of which are likely not needed and just negatively affect performance (think of it as living in a large house where you’ve constantly got all the lights on and fans running, even though you really spend time in one room).

But is a flat-file CMS right for your next site?

As mentioned, it’s often a question of simplicity versus complexity. Do you have a simple or complex content model? Is your site a handful of pages or much larger? Do you need to present basic grouping or information to a user or present complex dynamic relationships? Does your site need to leverage features or functionality from an existing site (e.g., your global site) or can it stand alone? A flat-file CMS is best used for straight-forward sites that can get by with a simple user interface and basic customizable features. For example, a microsite for a particular program that showcases work and materials is a good candidate for a flat-file CMS. However, if a site needs to include a database, dynamic webpages, and multiple account profiles, a more complex and detailed CMS like Drupal or WordPress is likely a better fit.   

Never used a flat-file CMS before? The learning curve is easy.

As flat-file CMS platforms are ideal for straight forward sites, so too are their management and administrative functionalities. If you’ve used any sort of CMS before, getting started with a flat-file CMS is not complicated. Popular open source flat-file CMS platforms — such as Grav, Pico or Wonder — offer a wide range of plugins to make managing your site easy to do. Take a look at what flat-file CMS options are out there, and give them a try.  

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