BlueSpice MediaWiki versus Confluence: The wiki alternatives – part 1
We had already written a few lines about MediaWiki and Confluence some years ago. In our two-part article we now compare the wiki top dogs MediaWiki and Confluence in detail. Enjoy the read!
CEO of Hallo Welt! GmbH, historian, Wiki expert, book author and speaker. Born in 1971 in Ettal (Bavaria), he now lives in Regensburg and regularly blogs and tweets on the topics of wiki, social web and information technologies.
In an article about MediaWiki and Confluence some years ago we reflected the most common objections against MediaWiki. This article is still worth reading and also largely up-to-date. In the end, the core statement at that time was that the software selection is not only about features, but also about the concept of the software. This is timelessly correct.
However, MediaWiki does not have to shy away from direct feature comparison. Not least with the enterprise distribution BlueSpice, the feature question has long since been settled in my eyes. This is also shown by our latest internal feature comparison table, which we publish here and offer for free download:
The publication is a good occasion to comprehensively and systematically highlight the differences and similarities between the two projects.
Methodology and limitations
Now, as a manufacturer of BlueSpice, we are of course always biased and must therefore explain our approach and our objectives.
Feature lists are primarily a work tool and work in progress for us. Of course we want to use our list to highlight the strengths of BlueSpice MediaWiki. Nevertheless, Confluence is an outstanding software and it would be nonsensical to pretend that you can’t learn anything from it.
It is also clear that feature lists are always incomplete. Often, for marketing reasons, features are mentioned twice, technical functions are left out. And it is difficult to know all plugins and functions. That’s why additions and comments are always welcome here in the blog!
The goal of our comparison tables is to identify developments, strengths and weaknesses. For this we have:
- counterchecked our feature lists from two sides. This means that we have once completely recorded the official Confluence feature list (as far as available) and assigned BlueSpice functions and did the same procedure again in reverse with BlueSpice as the leading system.
- removed redundancies. We are primarily concerned with the function, which can be implemented in different ways.
- done research on whether we can close gaps: Is there a suitable plugin? Or is a function there, but not listed?
For comparison we take of course the full version BlueSpice pro in the current version 2 and compared it with the current Confluence version 6.1.x, as it is delivered for example in the Atlassian-Cloud.
In this way we have recorded and tested about 200 functions. This should make our comparison list the most comprehensive comparison table currently available on the web.
History, mission and licensing model
Confluence is designed from the beginning as software for enterprise use and aims at the saleability of a wiki software to companies. That’s why the manufacturer Atlassian focused on the visual design of the user interface, an integrated user authorization system and interfaces to the Microsoft world right from the start.
As a result, Confluence developed very strongly towards an intranet portal solution. After all, the software was in fierce competition with other portal software providers, especially Microsoft SharePoint, right from the start.
The IT and software developer scene is a central target group for Confluence and the manufacturer Atlassian positions itself overall as a software provider that enables the implementation of agile organizational principles, especially for IT companies. Accordingly, Atlassian’s motto is: “Team Collaboration”.
Confluence is a proprietary software. Open source projects and non-commercial organizations can get free community licenses. In addition, Confluence issues user licenses.
BlueSpice MediaWiki comes from a completely different corner. It focuses on the development of a comprehensive open-source enterprise software. The goal of the manufacturer Hallo Welt! is to optimize the Wikipedia software MediaWiki for organizations and companies. At the same time, the experiences of the web and the Wikipedia communities are to be transferred to the companies. In return, developments from the corporate world are made available to the free knowledge community. Hallo Welt! releases with BlueSpice free a version that is used in many public wikis and by non-profit organizations.
BlueSpice developed over many customer projects into a solution that focuses primarily on the handling of corporate knowledge: Finding relevant information quickly, collecting knowledge centrally, qualifying, structuring, quality assurance.
Perhaps it is also due to the German background that the company organization with process descriptions and manuals has become a not insignificant application. But not only. The motto of BlueSpice is: “Collect, qualify and share knowledge and know-how”. For this purpose, the developments and successful concepts are to be made available from the web.
BlueSpice MediaWiki relies on an open source subscription model such as Red Hat or SUSE Linux. The software is under a free license. However, Hallo Welt! delivers some modules only in the commercial version. The special feature: The subscription model does not require user licenses.
BlueSpice makes Wikipedia technologies and approaches usable for companies. Picture: VisualEditor of Wikipedia
Search and navigation
The search is an essential success criterion for any knowledge software. Confluence offers a good approach with filtering and searching in documents.
But BlueSpice gives the user more options right from the start. The search results are facetable: You can narrow down search results by document type, author, categories with just a few clicks. Search results are delivered on entry (autocomplete) – a feature that is only available with Confluence via a paid plugin.
In addition, the handling of semantic data (i.e. metadata, in Confluence more or less the page properties) is much more developed and in focus. Semantic searches are possible in the Pro version by default. The upcoming version BlueSpice 3 will be equipped with a new search engine (Elasticsearch) and will considerably improve and integrate the processing of metadata.
In general, there are many extras in the BlueSpice search and navigation in the standard version that cannot be found elsewhere: for example, a filterable list of all pages or a search for specific external links in the wiki to correct them if necessary.
Forwarding, an important concept for dealing with synonymous terms and thus improving search results, is included in the standard BlueSpice MediaWiki. At Confluence you have to purchase a plugin for this – which I can’t understand – and this is subject to a fee.
In general, all company wiki producers struggle with the demand to keep the user interface simple, intuitive and reduced on the one hand, and to offer more and more extensions and functions on the other hand, as well as to get space for third-party extensions.
Confluence’s navigation solves this really well and clearly. Hallo Welt! has also pushed the conceptual consolidation a lot and redesigned the navigation in MediaWiki for the needs of company wikis. This includes, for example, the ArticleInfo, which can display information about the review status of the page and the assigned editors, among other things. It also includes a personalized menu with individual entry points. But also the many administration and special pages, which the MediaWiki brings along, are more easily accessible with BlueSpice. The topic of navigation and usability has not yet been completed and will occupy the developers more intensively in the next twelve months.
The central left menu in BlueSpice 2 is deliberately not as much oriented towards group work as in Confluence. Technically, of course, you can always set up namespace-specific menus for groups and departments. But the experience from Wikipedia shows that a permanently available menu that is identical for all users and uniform throughout the wiki is important to give users a reliable orientation guide in the wiki. In Confluence you have to click into the area directory to get out of the personalized workspace.
Spaces are the structuring basic concept of Confluence. The idea behind it is to create separate and protectable areas for topics and groups. These areas can be categorized, observed and equipped with special gadgets like a group blog. For each area, separate thematically coordinated navigations are possible. The areas can be saved and archived separately. In this sense, Confluence consists of knowledge containers for teams.
BlueSpice goes a different way with the MediaWiki approach. The tasks of the Confluence areas (Spaces) take over the namespaces in MediaWiki. Namespaces are initially divided for technically specific content groups (files / attachments, user pages or categories). They are also used to separate all blog posts, to set up an archive or for working group minutes. In everyday corporate life, they are set up for manuals with specific user rights or for working groups (e.g. corporate management). They can not only be equipped with rights, but also with special extensions, such as a workflow and release function.
The basic principle here again is not to tend to set up too many separate areas, but to keep the company knowledge as centralized as possible and thus make it quickly findable. Only what should not be included in the primary search results, which is to be separated in terms of rights or content, is locked away. This may seem unusual at first, but when the wiki is running for a while in operation, it unfolds positive effects that the user can often only describe as finding content faster in BlueSpice MediaWiki and that he really has a wiki in front of him.
Last but not least, BlueSpice also offers the Wikipedia way to push larger topic contexts and above all different language variants into separate, loosely networked wikis. For this purpose, there is BlueSpice farm, which is available for a fee, and with which many different wikis can be managed centrally.
BlueSpice MediaWiki creates space for any topic, but urges users to agree on common terms, as in Wikipedia. If there are different pages on a topic, term explanation pages are created. There, editorially, pages that are ambiguous are collected and links to the respective specific pages are created. In the corporate context, this means that links are created to the entries “Reading confirmation (extension)” and “Reading confirmation (process description)”, for example, for a term “Reading confirmation”. Users and authors can use these links to quickly find the central pages with the respective sub-topic.
In addition, both systems offer proven concepts for structuring content: subpages, page templates to pre-structure articles, categories and much more.
BlueSpice can build on MediaWiki strengths here. For example, subcategories are possible. Also the template system is already very powerful in the standard version. For example, the template system can be used to integrate articles and text modules in several pages (“transclude“). This is very helpful in everyday editorial work when maintaining content.
A unique selling point of BlueSpice is its book function (Bookmaker). With it, single articles can be combined to collections; with chapters and subchapters. Users can then navigate to the pages, read and search the book via chapter navigation.
Books offer a self-contained and linearly arranged collection of knowledge on a topic and give it a certain binding character through the quality assurance options. Therefore, the book function is used to visually and editorially distinguish the content to be maintained by departments from the free knowledge collection. If a page belongs to a book, the readers immediately see that it is binding content for the company organization.
Conveniently, the books can be exported in various formats. With file attachments, tables of contents and cover sheets, for example, to hang up a current emergency manual in the company.
In general, the customizable PDF export, which can be used to generate high-quality documents, is a BlueSpice flagship.
The editor is a core function for all wiki solutions. Both Confluence and BlueSpice deliver a visual editor that makes editing articles comfortable and the use of wiki code as unnecessary as possible. A number of standard functions have evolved that are now offered by all visual editors and can be read from the comparison list. Therefore I would like to outline only a few current developments.
With version 6 Confluence has created the possibility for real-time editing. This allows users to write on a text at the same time, like you know it from Google Docs. I have written elsewhere in more detail about the fact that the MediaWiki developers are also thinking about real-time. But the step towards real time also has its disadvantages. For example, Confluence does not allow access to the source code anymore. But working with a wikitext editor in the wiki “source code” has some advantages. You can also use it to edit more complex or individual functions. A Wiki page remains “programmable” for power users.
But despite the abandonment of the Wikicode, Confluence editing does not necessarily become easier or less complex. For example, Confluence allows you to split pages into columns. On the one hand, this is very helpful for positioning, but on the other hand it makes editing complicated in places. The simplicity of working then inevitably suffers. Confluence is thus very much in the direction of content management systems, Microsoft SharePoint and portal solutions.
Screenshot:The Confluence Editor with sections
Under “Rich Articles” we summarize functions, which enrich articles with additional, mostly dynamic functions. Examples are: the display of flowcharts, the integration of players or the display of formulas and navigation elements. The functions can be integrated via tags. Both systems offer a variety of additional functions that can be quickly integrated.
Confluence bundles many of these functions under the term “Macros”. In the general feature descriptions we find 54 ready-to-use macros that are delivered with Confluence as standard.
BlueSpice MediaWiki bundles many comparable functions under the term Magic Words. However, these approx. 120 Magic Words serve rather as building blocks for more complex templates. Magic Words can be combined with parser functions to model simple logical processes. For example, you can build a tag with the following query: “If there is a page with the title “MediaWiki”, output it, otherwise jump to the next page”.
In other words: BlueSpice MediaWiki also wants to give the experienced user the possibility to build page functions according to his needs with Magic Words. Confluence, on the other hand, offers rather ready-made and predefined functions that can be quickly built into a page.
Both providers support the use of frequently used tags via wizards. Via MacroBrowser (Confluence) and InsertMagic (BlueSpice) the most important functions can be integrated with a few clicks even without previous knowledge.
When dealing with file attachments, both Confluence and BlueSpice provide the most important functions for the use in companies. Basically, files can be easily uploaded in both systems and categorized if desired. All documents can be versioned.
In general, the different concepts are also visible when it comes to documents.
In Confluence documents are attached to individual pages and you can display all documents of a space.
In contrast, BlueSpice works with a central file management: All uploaded files are managed in a namespace for files and are therefore available and searchable for all spaces. BlueSpice supports the administration with an own management page (Extended Filelist).
Again, the MediaWiki principle of primarily sharing documents and not putting them into authorization containers applies. Nevertheless, documents can also be assigned to individual namespaces in BlueSpice. Thus, read rights can be restricted, so that as with Confluence only users with read rights for a namespace can find and open the corresponding documents.
For companies the handling of office documents is always an important issue. In general, Office documents can be uploaded, searched and integrated. For example, a Word file opens automatically with Word during editing. In order to save the file in the Wiki again without having to upload it again, a separate extension is required, which must be set up by the customer. This is usually done with a WebDAV extension that is available for Confluence and BlueSpice.