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Good or Bad? The Verdict on Open Source CMS

By Daniel Threlfall February 7, 2013 Articles and Editorials  Comments

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Which is better — an open-source CMS or a proprietary CMS?

We're going to tip our hand here at the start by admitting that the question is unanswerable. The answer depends on who you are and why you're asking. This is sort of like the question, "What's better — chocolate ice cream or vanilla ice cream?" There's no right answer. It all depends on whom you're asking. Unfortunately, the open vs. closed debate engenders more negative emotions than choosing ice cream flavors.

With the preceding caveat in mind, we cautiously suggest that an open-source CMS is usually better for most. If you're deliberating over a CMS right now, or just want to get some insight on the open-source question, there are some considerations you should keep in mind. From white papers, to blog articles, to coffee-house conversations, the following six issues usually arise in the closed vs. open question:

  1. Stability:  Is the CMS stable? Will it last for the long-term?
  2. Support:  Can I get the help I need?
  3. Cost:  What's it going to cost me?
  4. Flexibility:  Can I move it, change it, or tweak it?
  5. Security:  Will my sensitive material be safe?
  6. Usability:  How difficult or easy is the CMS to work with?

Let's walk through each of these questions, introduce some facts, and come away with some answers.

Stability

Some of the opponents to an open-source CMS claim that open source systems are not stable. Stability is really important, of course, If you're a design or hosting agency, you want to provide your clients with rock-solid assurance that you've got their back. Though counterintuitive, an open-source system is usually stabler than a proprietary system. If the single company managing the proprietary system goes under, what then? An open-source CMS, on the other hand, has a life of its own. No one entity owns it. Thus, there will always (presumably) be a support network and stable foundation upon which it can exist. The community is the stability. Thus, if you are opting for an open-source CMS, select one with a large existing community. The best way to future-proof your web presence is to go with something with a huge root system.

Support

A survey of the marketing techniques of proprietary CMS providers shows one major feature:  They sell support. Far and away, what you're purchasing with those sky-high fees is not necessarily the CMS. It's the support — or at least the promise that you'll have it if you need it. Support is a critical factor, but keep in mind that an open-source CMS is not without its support network. In fact, it can be a lot easier to get the help you need through the vast community of open-source users who are huddled on forums, Google hangouts, and Facebook groups. Open-source platforms somehow breed a sense of loving loyalty that compels one user to help another user in need. Maybe there's no 800 number, but there sure are a heck of a lot of forums.

Cost

A commercial CMS can cost tens of thousands each year in licensing fees. No joke. For a small business, the cost can be just way too much to put up. Of course, no one is saying that it's free to implement an open-source system, but it is usually cheaper. Way cheaper. In the open-source world, instead of relying on capital to fuel your CMS, you're relying on tech-savvy personnel. Yes, such personnel may cost money, but the returns are generally a lot better.

Flexibility and Customization

The beauty of open-source systems is their ability to become exactly what you want them to be. A website provider I consult for has harnessed the power of Wordpress to give thousands of end-users exactly what they need. They redesigned the entire Wordpress admin for their target audience, and created custom plugins to meet their precise needs. Seldom is such massive customization available on a closed solution.

What about flexibility? Do you really want to be locked in to using a proprietary CMS for the rest of your natural life? What if you decide to switch your CMS for whatever reason? An open-source CMS frees you from the grip of someone else's system. With an open-source CMS, flexibility is definitely there.

Security

Do you risk your data by using an open-source system? Don't let the word "open" fool you. Open refers to the source code of the system, not the data you store in the system. If you execute the correct security procedures and/or plugins on your sites, your data is going to be just fine. If a hacker or wikileaks freelancer wants your data, he or she is going to get it whether you're using an open-source system or not. Even the White House uses Drupal, an open-source CMS. If you are conducting business that requires regular security audits, consult with your auditing agency to determine their perspective on open-source systems.

Usability

One web agency I consulted for recently told me that they were considering making their own CMS. They had been creating client sites on Joomla. Joomla is a great CMS, but the interface was confusing to their clients. When a client wanted to make a simple change to their website, they usually had to call the agency and find out how to find the page to edit, where to add the changes, and how to save and publish it. It was a headache. Of course, you're going to have to guide clients through some technical waters, regardless of your chosen CMS. For this agency, however Joomla was not a usable platform for most of their clients.

Simplicity and ease-of-use is one of the most critical factors in selecting a CMS. You may be able to navigate the world's most complicated CMS with utter ease, but can your clients?

Many proprietary CMS companies offer training along with their CMS. Take a look at the CMS and you'll quickly find out why. The level of complexity is disconcerting. An open-source CMS like Wordpress, on the other hand, is rather simple, making it relatively easy for a newbie to get started editing his or her own site. The issue of usability depends more on the specific CMS you choose, rather than whether it's open-source or not.

Conclusion

When placed on balance scales, open-source seems a winner — but that does not hold true for everyone. Some companies may decide that they need to create their own CMS to better serve their clients. Other companies may not have the technical expertise to set up their own open-source CMS, and so may contract with a proprietary service that provides setup and installation. Each organization must evaluate their own unique situation, and make a decision that best fits their present needs.

The two deciding factors on the open vs. proprietary debate are as follows:

  1. What are your needs?
  2. What CMS are you considering?

Comparing proprietary systems with open-source systems is a bit like comparing apples with oranges. Instead, you should first evaluate your own needs, then compare specific CMS, open-source or otherwise, with each other to determine what you need.

As you determine which CMS is best, CMS Critic is here to help. Be sure to check out our CMS reviews before you make a final decision.

Your thoughts? What decision did you make and why?

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Daniel Threlfall

Daniel Threlfall Author

By Daniel Threlfall - Since it's hard to make a living drinking coffee, I instead write about tech. And I drink coffee. I'm concentrated in web design, good CMSs, SEO, bad CMSs, social media. And I drink a lot of coffee. No cream, no sugar. You can find Daniel on Google+, and Twitter.

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