In this two-part article, we give a detailed comparison of the wiki top dog MediaWiki and Confluence.
We already wrote a few words about MediaWiki and Confluence some years ago. At that time, we wrote about the main objections to MediaWiki.
That article is still worth reading and remains largely valid. Ultimately the key argument then was that the choice of tool did not depend only on features, but also on the concept behind the software. This is a timeless truth.
However, MediaWiki does not need to fear a direct feature comparison. Importantly, the enterprise distribution BlueSpice has already decided the feature question in my view. This can be seen on our newest internal feature-comparison table, published here and offered for free download:
- Feature Comparison BlueSpice and Confluence 2017.xlsx
- Feature Comparison BlueSpice and Confluence 2017.ods
This publication is a good chance to detail the differences and similarities of the two projects comprehensively and systematically.
Methodology and limitations
Now as the producers of BlueSpice, we are, naturally, partisan and so we need to explain our procedure and objectives.
Feature lists are primarily tools and work in progress for us. Of course we want to outline the strengths of BlueSpice MediaWiki with our list. However, Confluence is excellent software and it would be ridiculous to pretend that one could not learn anything from it.
It is also clear that feature lists are always incomplete. Features are commonly named twice for marketing reasons, and technical features may be left out altogether. It is also difficult to be fully acquainted with all the plugins and features. And so we welcome additions and comments here in the blog!
The aim of our comparison table is to identify developments, strengths and weaknesses. For this reason, we have:
- double-checked our internal feature lists from both sides. This means we have fully included the official Confluence feature list (as far as is available) and assigned BlueSpice functions to the Confluence’s. Then we undertook the same procedure in the other direction, assigning Confluence features to BlueSpice’s.
- eliminated redundancy. We are primarily interested in functions which can be used differently.
- researched whether we can close gaps: is there a suitable plugin? Or is the function actually there but not listed?
We use the full BlueSpice pro, of course, in the current version 2. We have compared this with the current version 6.1.x of Confluence as it is delivered in the Atlassian cloud, for example.
In this way, we have included and tested about 200 functions. Thus should ensure that our comparison is the most comprehensive to be found on the web at the moment.
History, mission and licence model
Confluence was conceived as software for business use from the start, aiming to sell wiki software to companies. For this reason, the producer Atlassian set its stall out with an optical design for the user interface, an integrated user permissions system and interfaces with the Microsoft world.
Later, Confluence developed strongly in the direction of an intranet portal solution. The software had strong competition from other portal software providers from the start, in particular Microsoft SharePoint.
The IT and software development scene is a central target group for Confluence and the producer, Atlassian, is positioning itself as a software provider which primarily makes use of the agile organisational principles possible for IT companies. Atlassian’s motto fits with this: “Team Collaboration”.
Confluence is proprietary software. Open source projects and non-commercial organisations can obtain free community licences. Other than this, Confluence has user licences.
BlueSpice MediaWiki comes from a totally different angle. It focuses on the development of comprehensive open-source enterprise software. The goal of Hallo Welt!’s producers is to optimise the Wikipedia software MediaWiki for organisations and companies. At the same time, the experience of the web and the Wikipedia communities is incorporated in companies. In return, the developments coming from the business world are provided for the free knowledge community. Hallo Welt! publishes a version, BlueSpice free, which is used in many public wikis and non-profit organisations.
As a result of this, over many customer projects, BlueSpice has developed into a solution which puts particular emphasis on company knowledge: finding relevant information, collecting knowledge centrally, giving it context and structure, and securing its quality.
It may be thanks to its German background, that businesses with process descriptions and handbooks has remained an essential user scenario. But not the only one. BlueSpice’s motto is: “collect, contextualise and share knowledge and know-how”. For this, developments and successful concepts from the web are made available.
BlueSpice MediaWiki uses an open-source subscription model like, for example, Red Hat or SUSE Linux. The software is under a free licence. However, Hallo Welt! offers some modules only in the commercial version. What is special is that the subscription model dispenses with user licences.
Let us come now to the features.
Searching and navigation
The search function is an essential criterion for the success of any knowledge software. Confluence offers a good approach with filter options and searching within documents.
However, BlueSpice offers the user more options right from the start. The search results can be faceted: one can restrict search results according to document type, author, or category with less clicks. Search results already appear while you type (autocomplete) – a feature that one can only get for Confluence via a paid-for plugin.
Alongside this, the handling of semantic data (metadata, for Confluence roughly in the page properties) is much more developed and considered. A semantic search function is inherent in the pro version. The next version, BlueSpice 3, will come with a new search engine (Elasticsearch) and will process metadata much better and in a more integrated way.
Overall, there are many extras as standard in the BlueSpice search function and navigation which you cannot find anywhere else: like a filterable list of all pages or searching for specific external links in the wiki so you can correct them where necessary.
Redirect is an important concept for dealing with synonyms and improves search results. It is standard in BlueSpice MediaWiki. In Confluence, one needs to pay for a plugin for this feature, which I cannot understand.
In general, everyone producing company wikis has to struggle with the requirements, on the one hand to guide the user in a simple, intuitive, cut-down way; and on the other to offer an ever increasing array of expansion and functions, and keep space available for expansions from third parties.
Confluence’s navigation system solves this problem really well, making things clear. Hallo Welt! has also advanced its conceptual integration a great deal, and adapted MediaWiki’s navigation system to the needs of company wikis. This includes, for example, the article info, which amongst other things can show information about the review status of the page and the editors assigned to it. Likewise, it includes a personalised menu with individual access points. And all the administration and special pages contained in MediaWiki are easier to reach with BlueSpice. The topic “navigation and usability” is, however, still not fully worked through and will busy the developers intensively over the next twelve months.
BlueSpice’s central menu is purposely designed not to be as specifically targeted towards working in groups as it is in Confluence. From a technical point of view, one can set up namespace-specific menus for groups and departments whenever one wants. Experience from Wikipedia, however, shows that a consistently available menu, identical for all users and uniform across the whole wiki is important for providing the users with a reliable aid to orientation in the wiki. In Confluence, one has to click in the spaces directory first, in order to leave the personalised work area.
Spaces are the fundamental structural concepts in Confluence. The idea behind this is to create separated areas that can be protected for topics and groups. These spaces can be given categories, watched and provided with special Gadgets like, for example a group blog. Each space can have its own thematically coordinated navigation system. The spaces can be separately backed up and archived. In this sense, Confluence consists of knowledge containers for teams.
BlueSpice does things differently, using the MediaWiki approach. The tasks undertaken by spaces in Confluence are performed in MediaWiki by Namespaces. Namespaces are initially distributed to group specific content (files / attachments, user pages or categories). They are also used to separate blog entries, set up archives or to minute work groups. In the everyday work of a company, they are set up for handbooks with specific user rights or for work groups (for example the management team). They can be provided not only with permissions but also with special expansions like a workflow and approval function.
The basic principle is, once again, not to set up many separate areas, but rather to store the company’s knowledge as centrally as possible, making it quicker to find. Only content which should not appear in the primary search results, or which is special as regards rights or contents should be locked away. This seems unusual at first, but delivers positive effects when the wiki has been running for a while, which the users can only describe by saying that in BlueSpice MediaWiki they can find content faster and that they really feel they have a wiki in front of them.
Last but not least, BlueSpice offers the Wikipedia way of placing larger topics, and particularly different language versions into separate, loosely networked wikis. For this purpose, there is the additional paid-for software WikiFarm, which lets one manage a collection of wikis centrally.
BlueSpice MediaWiki, while generating space for any topic you like, pushes the users to agree on shared terminology just like in Wikipedia. When there are different pages on one topic, then disambiguation pages are created. Ambiguous terms are collected there and links to the various specific pages created. In a business context, this means that, for example, for a term like “read confirmation” there is a link to the entry for “read confirmation (expansion)”. “Read confirmation (expansion)” and “read confirmation (process description)” are created, and the central page lets users choose from the relevant subtopics.
Alongside this, both systems offer tried and tested concepts for structuring content: subpages; page templates, to structure articles in advance; categories and many more.
BlueSpice can use MediaWiki’s strengths here. So, for example, subcategories are possible. Even the template system is very powerful as standard. In this way, the template system can, for example, be used to include articles and text building blocks in several pages (“transclusion”). This makes the everyday care of content much easier.
A unique selling point of BlueSpice is its book function (Bookmaker). This lets individual articles be integrated together with chapters and sections. The users can use the chapter navigation system to switch pages, read the book and search it.
Books provide a closed and linearly ordered collection of knowledge on a theme and, by means of quality assurance possibilities, also provide a certain binding character. For these reasons, the book function’s output is optically different, signalling its different editorial status. This separates off the content cared for by a department from the wider knowledge collection. When a page belongs to a book, the reader sees immediately that its content is hard and fast content from a company organisation.
Books can be exported in a range of formats, which is very practical. They can include attached files, contents pages, and title pages, for example to create an up-to-date emergency handbook to hang up in the firm.
In general, the customisable PDF export facility is a highlight of BlueSpice, generating very high-quality documents.
The editor is a central function of any wiki system. Both Confluence and BlueSpice provide visual editors, which make editing articles convenient and make the use of wiki code unnecessary. A range of standard functions have developed in this area, which are now offered by all visual editors. You can read them off from the comparison lists. I would therefore like to just sketch a couple of current developments.
Confluence has made real-time editing possible in its version 6. This means that users can write in a text at the same time, like in Google Docs. I have already written something more comprehensive about the MediaWiki developers reflections on real-time editing. Moving in the direction of real-time editing does, however, harbour disadvantages. Thus, for example, the editor in Confluence no longer allows access to the source code. Working with a wiki text editor in the wiki “source code”, does, though, offer some advantages. It allows editing more complex or individual functions. The wiki site is then still “programmable” for power-users.
Still, despite dispensing with wiki code, editing in Confluence is not necessarily more simple or more complex. Confluence, for example, lets you split pages into columns. This is, on the one hand, very helpful for positioning, but it sometimes makes editing complicated. Simplicity in working suffers inevitably. Confluence is going a long way in the direction of a content management system, Microsoft SharePoint and portal solution.
BlueSpice MediaWiki offers a modified TinyMCE editor at the moment. The new version BlueSpice 3 will be coming out in 2018 with MediaWiki’s own visual editor as standard. The strengths of this editor are its integration and stability. Templates can be developed much more simply with it and much more can be done too. The new VisualEditor will be fitted out with extra functions by Hallo Welt! If you would like to test out the functionality, you can do this at Wikipedia or at MediaWiki.org (if necessary switch over to visual editing).
We use the term “Rich Articles” to mean all those functions providing articles with additional, generally dynamic, possibilities. Examples of this are displaying flow charts, embedding players and displaying of formulas and navigation elements. The functions can be embedded by using tags.
Both systems offer a multitude of quickly embedded additional functions.
Confluence uses the term “Macros” for many of these functions. The general feature description lists 54 finished macros which are delivered as standard with Confluence.
BlueSpice MediaWiki uses the term Magic Words for many comparable functions. These roughly 120 magic words, however, are more for use as components for more complex templates. Thus, Magic Words can be combined with Parser Functions to model simple logical processes. In this way, one can, for example, build a tag with the following meaning: “If there is a page with the title “MediaWiki”, output it, otherwise jump to the next page”.
To put it in another way, BlueSpice MediaWiki wants to use Magic Words to provide experienced users with the possibility of assembling the functions they need on their pages. Confluence, on the other hand, offers finished, predefined functions which can be built into a page quickly.
Both providers offer assistants for using common tags. The most important functions can be embedded without prior knowledge via the MacroBrowser (Confluence) and InsertMagic (BlueSpice).
Both Confluence and BlueSpice deliver the most important functions for using attached documents in companies. Basically, files can be uploaded and categorised in both systems. All documents can be versioned.
Overall, the differing concepts we mentioned earlier become clear when it comes to documents.
In Confluence, documents are attached to individual pages and one can see a display of all the documents in a space.
BlueSpice, on the other hand, has a central file-management system: all the files are managed in a namespace for files and so they are available for all areas, and are searchable. BlueSpice has its own management page to support this: Extended Filelist.
Here MediaWiki comes into play once more: primarily sharing documents rather than locking them away in rights containers. Despite this, BlueSpice documents can also be assigned to individual namespaces. This allows the read permission to be restricted so that, like in Confluence, only users with the read permissions for a namespace can find and open the documents belonging to it.
Businesses always find handling Office documents important. Generally, Office documents can be uploaded, searched and embedded. Word opens automatically for editing a Word file, for example. In order to save the file again without having to upload again, you need an individual expansion which has to be set up for the customer. This is generally accomplished with a WebDAV expansion, available for Confluence and BlueSpice.