Interview with Ryan Thrash of MODx CMS

MODx CMS has continually been gaining in popularity over the years and we thought it would be interesting to touch base with the founder of this great CMS and get his thoughts on the project, how it started and where it's going. Read on!

Please tell us a bit about yourself and your background.

Ryan Thrash

I grew up in Tyler, a small East Texas town with my parents and younger brother. In 1994 I moved to Dallas, TX, where I went to college to get a business degree at SMU. Years after graduating I was set up on a blind date with the gorgeous woman that I managed to convince to marry me, now happily so for 11 years. I am fortunate to have an incredibly supportive partner that keeps a crazy entrepreneur of 20+ years in line when needed. We have a daughter (4), a son (8) and our new puppy that arrived this Christmas.

Professionally, I come from the print world having started a pre-press and ad production shop which I owned for roughly a dozen years. While I love amazing typography, white space and beautiful proportions, I definitely don’t miss the CMYK world.

People often ask how the print-world translated into the CMS software business. My first introduction to programming was when I began hacking on mainframes in the in 4th grade at a summer class for kids at a nearby community college. While I am certainly not a developer in the true sense of the word—especially since CSS actually makes sense to me—I do know what can be accomplished. I’ve always been the lead tech at my business and, starting in the mid-90s, I started poking around with what was then PHP-FI at my pre-press shop.

My first taste of open source was osCommerce, where I was involved in that community for a while. I followed that by being part of the original 10 or so early people with ZenCart, dabbled with Mambo and Etomite, and finally started what turned out to be MODX. It was certainly not a plan, but it’s been my career for the last 7+ years.

How did MODX come to be?

In 2004 I was looking for a CMS that would let me escape the then prevalent table-based layouts and style sites with lean markup and CSS. Back then bandwidth mattered and I had ported osCommerce to output semantic markup and saw huge reductions in rendering times; from then on I was sold.

I also wanted a platform that made creating login-protected content straightforward, that my clients could pick up and use to manage their sites without breaking things and that they could learn within an hour. Needless to say, it didn’t exist. As such, I teamed up with a small group of people including Raymond Irving and Jason Coward who had similar goals and we started our journey to achieve some very specific goals:

  • Provide a simple template system that used standards-based (X)HTML/CSS and that didn’t inhibit design or site structures in any way.
  • Let users quickly build login-protected site content.
  • Create a sensible, robust and extensible API that developers could use to extend or override the platform without having to hack the core.
  • Allow people to organize content in a logical and understandable manner.
  • Avoid the tortuous or extended learning curves found in many other CMSes.
  • Work equally as well for basic marketing websites as it would for more complex applications.

We first released MODX in the wild in 2005, and it was exhilarating to watch people resonate with our work. Our first Packt Award for Most Promising Open Source CMS came in 2007, a big encouragement for turning a passion into a profession.

In 2010 we formed a company around MODX to give it our full-time attention. This past year I hired our CEO to focus on strategic business issues, freeing the rest of the team to focus on three key areas: Community, MODX Complete (support & maintenance for businesses) and MODX Cloud, which is simply going to be an incredible platform—and which I’d love to talk about with you more at a later date.

We’re looking forward to meeting lots of people at CMS Expo this year, which we consider our first big launch. It’s kind of funny given that we already have hundreds of thousands of sites powered by MODX, amazing partners and some great traction.

Why the name MODX?

MODular and eXtendable. Or something like that … really it was a working name that originally was going to be Tattoo CMS with the tagline of “Make Your Mark” and a hand print logo, but that got shelved and the MODX moniker stuck. We love it now.

What are the distinct differentiators between Evolution and Revolution for those unaware?

MODX Revolution, “Revo” for short, is the newer, completely rewritten version of our classic code base. Revo kept the same paradigms from MODX Evolution, but executed in Object Oriented PHP using a database layer that enables MODX to also run on Microsoft SQL Server. It gives developers the ability to override and extend Revo to achieve the exact functionality any project requires, without requiring upgrade-blocking “hacks” to the core.

Not only do you get both custom functionality and an upgrade path to the next version, but this new version also offers more control, the ability to create complex applications and integrations that would have been impossible with Evo. Scaling to hundreds of millions of page views is entirely possible with Revo, for instance. You can extend the caching layer to use Memcache or Membase, sessions to use Redis or some other highly-perfomant flavor du jour of the latest technology hotness.

MODX Evolution is perfect for small marketing-dominated websites or on an inexpensive, resource-constrained shared server without too many pages. Revolution can still be used for smaller sites but allows significantly more complex development, integrations and virtually unlimited content. MODX Revolution is where the focus of development activity is for us, however, we will continue to provide guidance, patches and releases for Evolution as needed.

What makes MODX unique?

MODX makes it incredibly easy to use any design one can dream up for their website and do so without having to code—in fact we can confidently claim MODX support HTML7 and CSS5 already today. It does so while separating how a site looks from how it functions. Users of all backgrounds find MODX easy to publish their content with confidence. What further sets it apart is that the MODX management interface can be completely customized for the users and tailored to the content. This ensures that people who use MODX daily to manage a site can easily use the tool and train others quickly as needed.

What do you feel is the main reason people use it as their CMS?

MODX truly empowers creative people to have 100%, pixel-perfect control of how sites look without ever having to write a single line of PHP. You can use any flavor of HTML/CSS/JS you want and you don’t have to worry about diving into a theming system, mixed templates/code or coming to grips with taxonomies or limited categories. We also have a great track record for security, with very few critical issues surfacing since inception.

Can you direct to any significant sized implementations that you are aware of? currently serves about 100-million page views a month and is tracking towards 150-million by December 2012. also serves quite a bit of traffic with a ton of complex back end infrastructure supporting all our sites. We are firm believers that our main marketing site should run on our software, constantly pushing to make it a better solution.

Which site do you feel makes the best use of MODX’s features? itself has many custom integrations and components. Our custom single sign on application is tied to a Mongo DB store. Our forums are built using the MODX API and handle tens of thousands of users with about half a million posts. We use our native blogging Extra called “Articles” for our news, announcements and blogging, and we have eCommerce transactions tied to FoxyCart and to Recurly.

We also have the back-end infrastructure in place for a MODX leaderboards platform that we’ve been testing for months, an internal dashboard, a live map showing when users download something or post in the forums (or anything else that will move them up the leaderboard), integration with Redmine for product management, and a lot more. We’re also working on a Certified MODX Professional program which will use another MODX Extra to handle exams and dynamically generating completion certificates PDF.

Is there a commercial offering of the CMS? How does the organization bring in funding?

MODX software is open source and will always remain free for anyone to download and to use—we’re 100% committed to open source. MODX the company offers turn key post-launch support and maintenance as well professional services working collaboratively with MODX Partners and large organizations to complete any phase of a MODX based project.

Later this year we will launch a new platform for web developers—anchored by MODX Revolution—called “MODX Cloud”. It’s a major game changer for people that build or manage websites, especially for creative or marketing organizations.

Who are the key contributors to the project? Can you tell us a bit about them?

Jason Coward and Shaun McCormick have done the majority of the development on MODX Revolution, and they both work for MODX. In the community there are hundreds of contributors who report bugs and submit pull requests to our GitHub repository. Highlights that immediately come to mind include Bob Ray, author of MODX: The Official Guide, Susan Otwell in Israel, and Stephane Boulard in France who improved the back-end Manager UI tremendously.

For MODX Evolution, the Russian and Japanese communities do a tremendous job of maintaining the software. Mike Schell, another one of our Senior Developers at MODX, vets the contributions and handles the releases.

If people want to get involved in the project, how can they do so?

There are many ways to get involved with MODX for people of all skill levels and from any location. The most basic thing people can do to contribute to MODX is let us know when something needs to be fixed or improved upon, or by requesting new features in our project tracker. This isn’t limited to just our software, if people find issues on our forums, in the documentation or anywhere on we love to hear about it so we can make it better. On that note, we can always use help improving our documentation. Developers and designers can contribute code through GitHub. To get involved contributing code don’t forget to sign a Contributor License Agreement first.

The MODX community forums of over 38,000 users is a welcoming, positive and supportive place to dig into MODX. Answering even the simplest of questions is an incredible way to master MODX, make friends and find collaborators. Most of the team at MODX came to our attention from the forums.

Finally, this past year there have been over a dozen meet-ups all over the world. We are committed to seeing our International interaction grow exponentially this year and we’re going to dedicate time and money to this. It’s a great way for MODXers to share experiences and find collaborators.

Final thoughts you may have or parting comments.

Thanks for giving us a chance to talk about MODX. We’ve been hiding in plain sight for a few years now and it’s time to change that!

I think what is truly special about MODX compared to most open source projects is that we are very friendly to commercial interests. In other words, while we are ardent proponents of open source, we are certainly not zealots. In fact I wrote a blog post on this a while ago. We certainly encourage people to license their work under an OS licence at MODX, but we also don’t hold it against them if they chose to do otherwise.

In other words, we don’t view open source as an all-or-nothing proposition. If you don’t modify the core application or use the public APIs to create something cool on top of MODX—like an amazing template or an Extra that enhances how MODX works—we think you should be able to license that however you wish. We don’t think MODX’s GPL license should “virally infect” everything that touches it and in turn dictate the license under which you release your IP. As such we’re in a great position to build an incredible commercial ecosystem around MODX Extras and Themes that is incredibly developer/designer-friendly. More on that in late 2012!