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Choosing the Right CMS: Open Source vs. Proprietary

When it comes to website development, you’ve got two CMS platform choices: proprietary or open source. Determining which one makes the most sense varies from one organization to the next. If you’re struggling to make a decision for your next website, take a step back and focus on your needs.

At Forum One, one of our key areas of expertise is in open source website development. Why and how we choose to work with platforms such as Drupal and WordPress is based on a deep understanding of both the positives and negatives of open source versus proprietary. Open source and proprietary development both produce valuable software; however, making the best choice for your organization is more nuanced than picking a favorite ideology.

What does this mean for your website?

In the most common and practical terms for you as an organization, this means choosing which of the two CMS platform types you will use as the base of your website. Popular proprietary platforms include Microsoft SharePoint, Sitecore, IBM Enterprise Content Management, and Alfresco, while most commonly-used open source platforms include Drupal, WordPress, Joomla, and Magento.

Rather than getting stuck on the differences between license types, or open versus closed approaches, the best place to focus your initial brainstorm is on your specific website needs:

  1. What do you need the software to do? 
  2. What attributes should it have? 
  3. Where does it fit within the rest of your infrastructure and plans? 

The answers to these questions will guide your discovery and recommendations process. 

1. What do you need the software to do?

What type of CMS you choose often comes down to what platform and tools your developer team is most comfortable with. However, as a decision-maker, your focus needs to be on how the platform will help you to achieve your digital goals. 

If your goal is to have a website that acts as a content-publishing powerhouse, you’ll want the software to accommodate a complex content model that allows resources to relate to topics, and topics to relate to other content. If your goal is to create a company intranet that staff use to effectively collaborate and share information, then the software will need to allow multiple systems and tools to connect and work seamlessly together. The complexities of your needs grow when it comes to web apps and e-commerce sites. 

In all cases, both open source and proprietary software have their benefits. Proprietary software is generally well regarded for user-facing tasks: end-to-end design and user interface depend upon a strong, single vision of how to work with a program. This choice lends itself well to a company with a single, super user interface that manages every detail (versus managing an open source group decision-making environment).

However, as modern websites increasingly need to fit within a business logic, open source solutions offer a greater range of functionalities, provided by their modular systems. Back-end applications that have “fire and forget” usage profiles, or that require interoperability with other products, generally lean towards open source options as they can be more easily and reliably customized, as well as having better support for open communication and file standards than their proprietary counterparts. 

2. What attributes should it have?

Beyond the basic functionality of the software, you’ll want to consider the specific attributes for your needs. This subject is deep, and could easily make up its own article.

But here is a sample of questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you have a complex content model that needs to be reflected on your site? 
  • Does media play a big role? What kind of authoring tools do you need?  
  • Is there a specific security standard where you need to be in compliance? What other security needs will you have for your site? These might vary greatly depending on who has the ability to post any sort of content to your site. 
  • What kind of content authoring workflow do you need? Will content need to go through a review process before it is published?
  • Do you need multi-lingual support? Who will provide your translations?
  • How extensively does your site need to interface with social media, i.e., shareable content?

Open source software tends to be more stable and secure because it typically has a community of developers behind it, fixing bugs, creating patches, and testing that software.  It always has a better up-front cost; however, using an open source option means paying for maintenance and update labor costs separately. Proprietary software in contrast, usually comes bundled with strong support options, but is never as secure as code that a larger community can inspect for problems and offer solutions and updates.

3. How does it fit into your infrastructure?

You will need to determine the needs of your infrastructure. Is the project life-span expected to last through the life of the company? What is your preferred hosting platform? 

One of the biggest fears of proprietary solutions is “vendor lock-in.” This is not necessarily a huge concern for temporary solutions, short-term websites, or one-time expenses; however, if the application is core to your entire business, being bound to a single software can be a real challenge.

If the ability to interface with many other applications in your stack is a core requirement, open source tends to have much better support for open data and communication standards. A proprietary vendor can offer excellent integration between their own products (such as the Microsoft Office Suite), but this is often only valuable if you use them consistently throughout your stack. If compatibility with many other applications is a requirement, then open source is more likely to provide that flexibility.

Support and Maintenance

A website CMS is a complex tool, and so your plan needs to extend beyond just choosing what platform you want to use, but also how it will be supported. Most software-as-a-service solution products come with a subscription that cover things like security updates. In open source, rather than a subscription, you need a contract with a qualified support vendor who can stay on top of security updates being provided by its open source community. Your support team also responds to bugs, provides guidance to your digital communications team, and checks in with you regularly to discuss your overall digital strategy and footprint. 

The Big Takeaway

Choosing the right CMS platform is no simple matter. Open source platforms like Drupal and WordPress provide a lot of flexibility, and are easy to extend if you have a reliable and knowledgeable development team available. Proprietary solutions on the other hand may provide a quick turnaround, and allow you to delegate a lot of work to the vendor. 

Ultimately, if you’re trying to make your software choices license-first, you may end up with some undesirable outcomes. Our advice is to ignore the software piece — at least at first — and focus on the real website behaviors and attributes that you need for your organization to reach its website goals. By exploring it in this order, you may find that your decision is much easier to take. 

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