Oct 19 2012

MODX: Is It The Right Choice For Your Website?

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If you are creating a new website, chances are you’ll be using a Content Management System. Unless you have a personal favorite and/or have a rigidly defined set of requirements that can be met by your preferred CMS, you may need to do some searching before you finalize a CMS for your website. Today, we shall be taking a look at one such Content Management System: MODX. Before we begin, allow me to be clear: MODX is neither a “minnow” or a “newbie” in the CMS world. It has its own loyal following, a huge community and user base and a properly documented code. It powers numerous organizations’ websites and has its own cloud solution, organizes a MODXpo (as opposed to WordCamp), and does a lot many other things that you’d expect from a full-fledged business organization.

So, coming to MODX as a CMS, does it have what it takes to power your website? Definitely yes, no doubts. But does your website really need it? It is this very question that we shall attempt to answer in this article.

For the sake of simplicity, we shall be by-passing details such as installation procedure, How-To, etc. Instead, we will focus entirely on assessing the usability of MODX as the primary CMS for your website, or as an alternative to your current CMS (say, WordPress or Drupal).

MODX: To Use Or Not To Use?

1. Usability (Ease of Use)

Unarguably, a CMS’s worth lies foremost in its usability. If the CMS is not easy to use, you probably will not bother offering it to your clients. Furthermore, unless you are really passionate (or really out of options), you will not bother with a not-so-user-friendly CMS yourself either. This is the primary reason for the success of WordPress: the software is extremely easy to use.

What about MODX? Well, on first look, the CMS is not the easiest to use option out there. Of course, since it is not just a blogging tool like WordPress, it is bound to have that extra level of detail in features and interface. However, comparing it with another do-it-all CMS, let’s say Concrete5, MODX surely seems a little confusing for the end-user when he/she uses it for the first time. That said the CMS mentions all the links to help documentation and forums in the admin panel menu itself, so you won’t exactly get lost or be out of sync either.

Plus, on a personal note, I do find the MODX interface to be better than that of Joomla! You have a Dashboard, and separate menus for Site, Reports, Tools, System and Users. However, just don’t expect to master it without turning the help files even once.

  • Pros: Properly laid out interface; Help is always at hand.
  • Cons: Common tasks such as content creation and stats can be better visible.

2. Flexibility and Customization

Customization is one area that MODX can brag about as much as it wants to (yes, it is that good). Starting with the development aspect, you can use your coding skills to take MODX to Mars, if you so desire. But just in case you do not possess the Mars-level coding skills (or would prefer just the Moon, not Mars), you can easily make use of MODX’s own tweaking tools.

Yes, the CMS comes with a sub-menu that asks you to tweak it as you like.

Example? Well, MODX lets you choose your own WYSIWYG Editor (unlike our favorite WordPress, which will let you do this only after you employ the Mars-level of code or a plugin). Simply head to Package Management and download the editor of your choice. In fact, the CMS itself does not come with a default editor for the purpose. If you do not like WYSIWYG, just do not install anything — enjoy raw HTML at its finest!

Along similar lines, MODX is an ideal CMS if you like to customize every fine detail of your website. If, however, you prefer everything served readymade to you, you’d be better off without it.

  • Pros: Customizations galore; super flexible.
  • Cons: Not apt if you are used to the abstraction offered by the likes of WP.

3. Community and Documentation (Help and Support)

This is another of the stronghold areas of MODX. If you ever feel lost or confused, have no fear. MODX has an active community forum along with extensive documentation, always at your service.

Apart from that, MODX also offers options for Custom Development and hiring a Pro to get the job done. Still need more? You can order books to master MODX offline, go through the online guide or attend MODX events. What more can one ask for?

  • Pros: Extensive docs; active forum support; good online help.
  • Cons: Forum members have a dubious distinction of not being the most friendly with absolute beginners.

4. Other Miscellaneous Elements

When you use a CMS, you just do not rely on the CMS itself. You also expect it to be backed by a repository of add-ons, and have a good number of third party developers for templates and themes. Further, additional features such as custom hosting solutions and live events also go a long way in giving a CMS edge over its competitors.

MODX has a decent repository of add-ons, though you will definitely not find its repositories beating those of WordPress or perhaps even Drupal. Going ahead of that, MODX also has a Cloud Hosting solution in store for you. Like mentioned above, there are also MODX events which are held regularly.

  • Pros: Cloud hosting solution (BETA); MODX events.
  • Cons: Add-ons and extensions collection not as populated as that of WP or Drupal.

5. Comparing it With Other CMSs

So, how does MODX fare when it comes to the others in the league? Comparing it with WordPress, MODX surely lags behind in terms of numbers of users. However, MODX has its own dedicated purpose, and it serves that well. Users of MODX ‘know’ why they chose it and not WP: they seek that added level of customization and other related things.

Comparing MODX to CMSs that may seem ‘similar’ to it in terms of operation will provide us with a better picture. Let’s take, for example, Concrete5, Drupal and Joomla!

Concrete5 does a lot of things that MODX does — offers hosting, has extensive documentation, an active community and user base, is a do-it-all CMS, has lesser plugins than WP or Drupal, and so on. Concrete5 arguably has a leaner layout in terms of admin panel, but your customization tweaks are also limited. You don’t directly get to “install” a WYSIWYG editor, for instance. That said, Concrete5 has a smoother learning curve too.

Drupal, on the other hand, gives you customization, has an active community, and also has a wider repository of add-ons. Is MODX inferior to Drupal? Probably, but once you use MODX, you will realize why it can serve certain purposes that Drupal will not. To begin with, no matter which way you defend it, Drupal looks like a bloated software when pitched against MODX. This is where the difference becomes clear: MODX does what it does best — offer the power to you, and be nimble all this while. Drupal, on the other hand, attempts to help both varieties of users: those that want the customization power in their hands, as well as those who’d prefer the CMS to implement some level of abstraction. MODX definitely satisfies its target audience 100%; Drupal’s satisfaction rate can be less absolute at times.

Coming to Joomla!, MODX wins clearly, in my opinion. Even the interface looks way better organized than Joomla! Trust me, I am a Joomla! user myself, but once you get the hang of MODX, you won’t miss it much. The only advantage that Joomla! obviously has is the availability of third party premium templates.

Conclusion

So, is MODX worth a spin? Well, I’ll put it in points, for easier reading:

You should use MODX if:

  1. You are planning a large website with integrated blog and varied features.
  2. You like absolute control over your CMS.
  3. You have developer skills that need to be fed.

You should not use it if:

  1. Your project is small and you do not really have much tweaking to do.
  2. You are unsure of your developer skills.
  3. You are happy with your current CMS (if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it).

Have you used (or are planning to use MODX)? What are your thoughts? Have your say in the comments below!

(dpe)

About the Author

Sufyan bin Uzayr writes for various magazine and blogs, and has authored several books. He blogs about technology, Linux and open source, mobile, web design and development, typography, and Content Management Systems at Code Carbon. You can learn more about him, follow him on Twitter or friend him on Facebook and Google+.

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Comments and Discussions
  • Mathias Dannevang, 19 October 2012

    I’m wondering about your first point, that the manager is to complex for the new user? One of the things I love about modx is that my clients never has to see anything they don’t use. I can completely customize the manager to fit the needs of the specific client and remove any distractions.

    My other point is that I definitely use modx for small sites as well. Compared to wordpress I think the templating process is so much faster because you can make it exactly as simple (or complicated) as you want, without having to abide by any rules.

    • Sufyan, 19 October 2012

      Hi,
      I meant that MODX may look complicated to a user if “he/she uses it for the first time”. You surely are well acquainted with the software, and you can customize it to make life easier for your clients. Imagine if your clients had to figure it out without your customization abilities?
      Regarding your second point, yes, it’s true that templating for MODX can be faster in some cases. However, at the end of the day, you’ll find more “readymade” themes for WP as compared to those for MODX. This is what I meant: if you have a small project with little resources/expertise, you’d probably be better off using the needle rather than sword. Precisely my second point in Conclusion (under don’t use): “if you are unsure of your coding skills”
      Also, another point I’d like to draw here is that if you have been developing for and working with MODX, obviously you will find it simpler, easier and more straightforward. This applies to any CMS, not just MODX. For eg, I use Zikula at times, and I’m cool with it, though I rarely find people who have great praise to say for it. ;)

  • Carlo, 19 October 2012

    Hi, thanks for your article about MODx.

    I am huge fan of the CMS. I think if you’re a designer, there is no better CMS than MODx ( that’s my opinion ). It is so simple to get your html template up and running.

    For the cons, I would say that MODx doesn’t offer as many plugins as others CMS ( such as WordPress, Drupal… ).
    Also, a MODx website takes time more time to set up than a wordpress blog. But if you have a complex & specific project, I do recommend MODx.

    • Sufyan, 19 October 2012

      Hey,
      Thanks for reading and giving your inputs. :)

  • Manfred, 19 October 2012

    I’m also a fan of MODX. I like to build my websites with clean html/css, and not cluttered with silly spans, divs and lots of css files. There are no themes/templates and other senseless stuff. You can do all what you want, no compromises. MODX doesn’t generate any html without your control. MODX is perfect for experienced webworkers, who know about the basics in html, css, semantics etc.

    Quote –> Cons: Add-ons and extensions collection not as populated as that of WP or Drupal.
    With MODX there’s imho no need for a big collection of plugins.

    like Mathias said: also use MODX for small sites. It’s simple and fast to set up a template/website. And you are prepared for expanding the site later (if needed).

    • Sufyan bin Uzayr, 19 October 2012

      Hey,
      Yes, to a great extent, I think the user base of MODX knows what it wants and is advanced enough to get it done, thereby proving in a lesser number of plugins/extensions. However, if someone is just starting out with MODX, the absence of a populous repository can be at times irritating, if not troublesome. :)

  • Guido Gallenkamp, 19 October 2012

    “If, however, you prefer everything served readymade to you, you’d be better off without it.” – nope. Just install a package like flexibility and you have it all ready for usage: ajax gallery with proper caching and autosizing images, blogging tools, contact form, template options (sidebar? footer boxes?), multi level menu – and all of it designed with the foundation framwork.

    “Add-ons and extensions collection not as populated as that of WP or Drupal.” – of cource not. There is no need to have that as you can do nearly everything with the existing extensions. You style them as you like or call them where, when and how you like. There is always a default layout which you can edit easily.

    Thank you for this honest and well-written article!

    • Sufyan bin Uzayr, 19 October 2012

      Hey,
      “install a package like flexibility”: That beats the purpose of “readymade”, doesn’t it? :)
      And yes, there isn’t a need of a super-populated plugin repo, but as I said in my reply to Manfred above, a newbie to MODX will probably prefer something more in the repo, before he/she masters the art of customization.
      Thanks for reading. :)

  • Sal Baldovinos, 19 October 2012

    I’ve been using MODX since 2007 and haven’t looked back. Made the jump to MODX Revo in early 2012 and, again, I haven’t looked back. MODX is a designer/developer friendly and I can usually give my clients a walkthrough in under an hour, in most cases.

    • Sufyan bin Uzayr, 19 October 2012

      Glad you’re having a great time with MODX, and thanks for sharing your experience. :)

  • Ralph, 19 October 2012

    What I’ve noticed with websites build with MODX (the sites in their gallery). They are loading lightning fast!. I’m here on Rhodes in Greece where the broadband speed is pretty low, so I can see easily the difference in loading speed compared to non-MODX sites.

  • Mark Thompson, 19 October 2012

    I’ve been using Modx for at least 5 years. Most of my work is custom software development that isn’t easily found in plugin packages. I wouldn’t consider changing. As for templates, I routinely purchase inexpensive html templates on sites like themeforest.net. Templates are easy to install and modifications are no problem. You do have to understand their tags and syntax, but again, its not hard to learn.

    As popular as WordPress is, it really sucks if you decide to change either your webhost or domain name. Beyond that, WP is also ripe for exploits and spammers who have picked apart the base code or popular 3rd party plugin code and where to gather pieces of data or insert exploits. I’ve seen a lot of compromised WP sites lately.

    I can also state for certain, MODx is extremely will built for SEO and social sharing purposes. This wasn’t covered in your article and it bears mentioning. The MODx developers excelled at providing simple tools for optimizing every page on your site.

    Thanks for supporting MODx with this article. They deserve the credit for their excellent and stable product.

    • Sufyan bin Uzayr, 19 October 2012

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Nice to hear that MODX is serving you well.
      “As popular as WordPress is, it really sucks if you decide to change either your webhost or domain name.”
      –Ask me! I recently had to change domains for two websites run by a friend, and both websites were on WordPress. Definitely not the easiest thing to do with WP.

  • Roberto Delgado, 19 October 2012

    Thanks for this article, i love CMSs in general. I have recently (2 days ago) installed Modx locally just for testing and looks great, is a little shocking at first if you come from Drupal, Joomla or WordPress background but is a nice and powerful CMS.

  • Kori Rush - Frogabog, 20 October 2012

    When I first began teaching myself web development, after learning basic html and css, I tried multiple CMS and then went to search for comparisons. When MODX is listed in comparison charts, it beats the others and since I am never happy with a template I knew I needed full control over the output and MODX looked to be the best choice.
    As a beginner still (let’s say absolute beginner, I still didn’t know what I was doing at the time), I do admit that the Manager was a little confusing, but as soon as I began exploring it proved to be very clear and concise. As a beginner, that was comforting. I soon realized that I could place any HTML into the template and it worked. I didn’t need MODX to work it’s snippeting, chunking, and template variable magic (that I didn’t understand) to simply publish a site. Any site works in MODX. And this is why I feel that for the absolute beginner, MODX is the perfect choice. Especially a beginner who wants to learn and make more than one site (eg- site owner).
    MODX allows for complete freedom to muck about in HTML and CSS and learn anything you like (Java Script/jQuery, PHP, etc.) as you need, only when you are ready. MODX out of the box, in no way cares what you use or where you place it within it’s framework. Use what you want, when you want. Even if you never use once a MODX tag, you can still use MODX to produce your site. WordPress can’t offer that, and for beginners, I strongly feel that letting a CMS decide what you can and can’t do is a serious detriment to actually learning anything. Many absolute beginners, should absolutely try MODX.

    I do take an objection to the point that the MODX Community is not nice to beginners.

    “Cons: Forum members have a dubious distinction of not being the most friendly with absolute beginners.”

    I do not feel this is the case at all. Having come to the forum as a beginner, relatively stupid about almost everything, I have never felt this unfriendliness, but rather the opposite. Where else do you find the Chief Architect of the project taking the time to help a new poster out? The project founder, the whole development team, authors of extras, long time users, and the author of the most current MODX physical guide are there every day, posting and offering assistance to first time posters and those who have even the most limited technical abilities! Where else does this happen? All the while active development continues on the project from these very people every day.

    Sometimes an answer might be cryptic, and not as technically simple as the user needs. I think we all run into this regularly with clients made up of regular people. We know what we mean, and it makes perfect sense to us, but words and concepts unfamiliar to the client are met with confusion.

  • Mark, 22 October 2012

    Good article and a fair conclusion.

    The difference between WordPress and MODX is similar to buying ready to eat microwave food compared to raw ingredients and cooking them. If your skills are limited to the former, picking a box out the fridge, piercing the lid and pushing the ‘2 minutes’ button it is a bit of shock looking at MODX’s blank canvas. But once you understand that you need to get some stuff out the fridge and put it in the pan with a bit of seasoning the end result tastes better, is healthier and will lead to a longer and happier life.

    Also too much weight is given to the volume of modules, similar to the number of Twitter followers. WordPress can get their module count up to 3 by offering ‘Normal’, ‘No Added Salt’ and Spicy. MODX wouldn’t offer any modules but expect the chef to know how to use the salt and pepper grinders.

  • Marcelliru, 09 November 2012

    Hi, Sufyan, and thank you for the fairly objective paper on MODX.
    However, when I consider my own experience, I can’t help thinking that you are downplaying two very important features of MODX: theming and learning.

    I am a non-coder, non-developer, I have only a small experience with html/css. As there is no money, I was asked to recreate the website of my state-owned institute in the humanities. This is a small site, with 40 member pages, news and a few static documents. So, according to your test, I shouldn’t have chosen MODX.
    To understand which CMS fits us I locally installed and tested several of them:
    - Worpress
    - Drupal
    - Spip
    - MODX
    I just created a front page using the layout of our website on each installation. Plus I displayed a list of documents published on the site. These were fairly easy tasks:
    1. create the layout (a very, very simple one) under each CMS;
    2. see how easy it is for managers to display any kind of list of anything in the frontend.
    I was stunned by the results: I succeeded in recreating our super easy layout in Drupal and WordPress only with great difficulties. I messed up with blocks in Drupal, read the doc on theming, spent hours twisting css to get what I wanted. Astonishingly it was not easier with WordPress: php and html are mixed in the pages, those are hard to find and to edit in the tree.
    Displaying a list of documents proved difficult in WordPress: you need a plugin for that, so you need to read thoroughly the doc (I am a non-coder), the learning curve is hard.
    If you want a list and you have no experience in php/MySQL, Drupal is not easy. It has this very complex Views extra. Actually, it is unusable if you don’t understand the php/MySQL behind the GUI. So the GUI is here a mere lie: It lures you into believing that you can master it (it is only radioboxes, right?). But in fact, this is not true, believe a non-coder.
    With Spip doing both tasks proved extremely easy and convenient. But Spip has other problems: I got the impression that it stagnates and that the intermediate language it created between php and the end user makes things more complicated than they are.
    As you can imagine, displaying a list with getResource and applying a layout went very well and very quickly with MODX.

    So that’s the first point: Theming in MODX is by far easier than in Drupal or WordPress.

    And then there is a second, extremely important feature that you guys php-coders can’t seem to grasp: with MODX you are invited to learn some php; MODX prepares a smooth learning curve for you. And that’s not true in WordPress and Drupal.

    Creating a first snippet comes naturally when working with MODX. You don’t need to know a lot of php to modify a url for instance. It is easy to do, because you can do all of it within the manager (don’t need to ftp the files and look for it in the tree).

    Then creating your first plugin comes naturally, too. I bought Bob Ray’s book and was all set!

    With MODX you’re learning by doing. Sure I did not become a programmer and certainly never will be one. But step by step I am learning. The modx objects are easy to understand and well explained in the doc. The next frontier is creating my own custom tables, handling consciously xpdo, create classes for new extras and so on.

    I experienced this by myself: what I have done in MODX I couldn’t have done in Drupal or WordPress. In WordPress I would spend all my time testing plugins made by others (that are more often than not conflicting with one another and never fit perfectly your needs). With Drupal I would have grown mad.

    By the way: you forgot to say that you may have modest needs for you site right now, but you may expect your site to grow in the future. That is exactly our situation in my institute: we don’t want to impede future expansion. And, as you rightly state, we want full control.

    • crecorn, 07 March 2013

      Marcelliru, loved your test. I went down a similar road and ended it with modx. Recently I took over a site designed by someone else in wordpress. It’s like playing a word search just to change the spelling in the footer!
      I’ve been growing with modx sisnce Evo. Couldn’t be happier.

  • Keith Penton, 11 December 2012

    Like Frogabog, I take exception to your claim that “Forum members have a dubious distinction of not being the most friendly with absolute beginners.” I’ve been using MODX for about 5 years, rea the forums almost daily, and have always observed that even the noobiest of questions can expect a polite and helpful response, often including replies from core developers. Where’s your evidence for this remark?
    ??? KP52

  • S-P Beliveau, 18 February 2013

    Nice article!

  • Aaron Brewer, 13 May 2013

    I will start off by saying that I haven’t used any other CMS as much as I have used MODx, and this is for a reason. I have played around with Drupal, Joomla!, WordPress, e107, along with a few others, but none of which may stack up to MODx.

    I am a website designer and front-end web developer, learning to be more a back-end web developer as well. I have never truly found a CMS that I felt like I had control over. When had I opened the Joomla! or Drupal back-end, I was confused on where I begin to actually make edits to templates. MODx gave me exactly what I wanted, creative freedom. I could do anything I wanted, I was, and am still, in love.

    Things to think about when using MODx over one of the older Content Management Systems:

    - You don’t have to touch a lick of PHP if you want a full dynamic website.
    - You are given a completely blank slate when you install MODx. No templates, no chunks of HTML, no assets, nothing!
    - The learning curve is very short. But to get really good with MODx, it will take years of experience.

    I like WordPress and the idea behind WordPress, but I am extremely excited for the Ghost Blogging Platform.

    What it all comes down to is whether you want to strengthen your resume by knowing Joomla! or Drupal, or learning MODx and never having to touch any other content management system ever again unless it’s WordPress.

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