This is part of a series designed to help businesses discover the best content management system (CMS) for their website’s needs and goals. We will break down broad concepts to take into account as well as review specific CMS over the course of this blog series.
When building a new website the content management system (CMS) you choose should be one of the first and most important considerations. Your CMS acts as the backbone or scaffolding that the rest of your site is built on. It allows you to login and make updates to the website including everything from text, images and links to URL paths, meta descriptions and blog posts without needing to know any code. A good CMS will allow anybody who can learn to use Microsoft Word the ability to simply manage content on their website.
One of the most common and interesting debates we hear in the industry: open source or proprietary CMS? This debate has grown over the last ten years as open source systems have grown more robust and popular. Developers and webmasters alike have strong feelings about the CMS they like to use most; within 10 minutes of looking at tech message boards you can find groups of dedicated people who will live and die with their preferred CMS.
I hate your CMS! No, not yours, his. Well, yours sucks too, just not as bad.
— Martin McKeay (@mckeay) May 22, 2015
So let’s explore what both open-source and proprietary mean to your business.
Open-Source CMS Wins the Popularity Contest
An open-source CMS is a free platform that uses a code base available to anyone and everyone. Open-source systems generally have large development communities that are continually building and expanding the platform in a very collaborative way. Some common examples of open source platforms are WordPress, Drupal, DotNetNuke, Magento and Concrete5.
Open-source platforms have grown a lot and are great solutions for individuals, organizations and businesses of all sizes. As free systems have become more popular over the past five years, we’ve seen a reversal in proprietary adoption. According to BuiltWith, as of May 25th 2015, WordPress is the open-source darling with its content management system being used for over 14.7 million websites.
As we include numbers from the hundreds of other open-source platforms available we see that open-source is by far the more popular option in today’s digital marketplace. Lets look at the pros and cons to discover if a free content platform makes sense for your business.
Pros of Open-Source CMS
- Flexibility and Ownership – Unlike with proprietary software you own the code. You can make any changes to the code you want, and if you don’t know any code that’s fine too! You can take your website to almost any development company and they will likely have the ability to fix bugs, integrate new features, and help make changes and updates you can’t do yourself. You have an infinite number of options.
- Large Development Communities – Need an API to draw in weather information? You’ll have your choice from dozens. Need to add eCommerce functionality or an events calendar to your site? Great, you’ll have more options for plugins or extensions than you can shake a digital stick at. The large user bases of open-source platforms mean you can get lots of recommendations on options for your business.
- No Licensing Fees – No doling out cash to have and use your own copy of some of the most robust and dynamic systems available today.
- Options – There are so many open-source options that anyone can find a solution with a strong community that is right for their business. Just make sure you do your homework upfront before you choose.
Cons of Open-Source CMS
- Rely on Community Support – There have been open-source CMS options in the past that have lost their development communities. At some point the CMS may no longer be supported and developed. If this happens you could see a time at which your website is no longer viable as web browsers and devices evolve but your CMS does not. This can be easily avoided by choosing a popular CMS with a large community.
- Support is Not Always Included – While there is a strong community to lean on many first time webmasters find themselves perplexed when they update the CMS and come to find that 3 or 4 of their modules have stopped working and need updates as well. The more expansive the site the more need you’ll find for having developer support for updates and patch bugs.
Need some development support? Let us know how we can help.
- Too Many Options? - What we often see with open-source options is everybody and their mothers are now professional web designers. Freelance designers can be extremely skilled but with the ability to simply re-skin website templates it can be hard to tell the difference between a quality developer and your second cousin who works out of his mom’s garage. To protect yourself make sure the open-source developer you choose has worked extensively with integrations and functionalities on the platform and not just pumped out the same site with 15 different color schemes and logos.
Proprietary CMS Locks You Into a Partnership
A proprietary content management system (CMS) is generally a licensed framework that is developed and maintained by a single company. The code of a proprietary CMS is privately owned by that company and is not made available to other developers or even those companies who use the CMS. It allows the company who developed the proprietary CMS the ability to update and maintain the code for their clients with a monthly fee. Every proprietary CMS is different and has its own unique pros and cons but we will be discussing them as a whole here.
Pros of a Proprietary CMS
- Simple Support – Having the code base owned and updated by a single company can make your life easier if you don’t want to have much involvement with your site. If you chose a quality company you trust, they will fix and update the CMS for you. You don’t have to worry about plugins and extensions breaking since they would have all been coded by the same organization and set of developers.
- Far Fewer Decisions to Make – With a proprietary solution you don’t have to go through a bunch of options and choose which module or extension is best for your business. It will be the same option for each of the company’s clients with some customization for individual needs.
- Development Time Can be Cut – Normally the backend with a proprietary CMS will be the same every time. This often gives the ability for the development team to build the site quicker and with less time spent in quality analysis.
Cons of a Proprietary CMS
- Licensing Fees – No explanation needed here. Everyone hates paying a monthly fee when there are more robust options available for free. Your resources are tied up in licensing, rather than adding value to other pieces of your business.
- You are Tied to Your Developer – This has been, and continues to be, the biggest issue with proprietary frameworks. The only company who is allowed to touch the code is the one you chose on day 1. That means if 6 months, 1 year, or 5 years down the road you don’t like your developer, or they are unable to create what you need, your website belongs to them. You need to start from scratch with a different company and can’t take anything with you.
- Companies Come and Go – This statement is true in any field but is even more so when it comes to digital. If the agency you are working with goes under or gets bought out who is going to maintain and update your website?
- Keeping up with the Joneses – Many proprietary platforms have not been able to keep up with the constant updates and changes to Google’s algorithm, browsers and devices. We especially find this to be the case with inexpensive proprietary solutions that are aimed at particular industries like real estate, restaurants or schools. Make sure the company you work with is continually investing back in the development of their CMS or you will be burned as the rest of the digital world evolves around you.
- Adding Modules and Functionalities – Digital needs evolve quickly and will require additional modules and add-ons to the site. If your CMS partner hasn’t already built these extensions, add-ons or integrations you could be stuck fronting a bill in the tens of thousands to develop the functionality or you’ll just have to learn to live without it.
Open Source or Proprietary for Your Business
As we’ve noted above, there are benefits to both open-source and proprietary CMS options. If you prefer to be hands-off with your digital properties, a proprietary platform might be right for your business. If you need an option that is dynamic, lets you be in control, and has the ability to expand—go with an open-source option.
Weigh your options before making any choice and be sure that with whichever direction you choose you also select a digital partner you can trust to build and maintain your website. Also check back into our blog in upcoming weeks as we dive deeper into how individual platforms stack up in delivering value.
*Cover image credit: rackspace.com