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Web content management: open source or proprietary?

30/08/2013 | Tom Witherington

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So, you're looking for a new website. In amongst the many factors to consider, you need to choose between agencies offering "open source" and "proprietary" website content management systems ("CMS".) So what are the differences and what might they mean to you?

In this blog post, we look at the fundamental differences between the two types of CMS software and suggest the major advantages and disadvantages of each type to the typical buyer.

"Open source" and "proprietary" are wide-ranging terms in their own right, so, as a point of clarification, for the purposes of this post we are focusing on "proprietary" as it applies to the many available CMS products developed in-house by web design agencies, rather than large-scale CMS products such as Sitecore or Microsoft SharePoint which can be implemented by any qualified development agency.

Webreality is well-placed to comment on this area, because we have used and championed each type at different stages of our history as a business. Between 2004 and 2010, we offered our own proprietary CMS, "ReWrite", which was in use by about 175 websites when we stopped developing it in favour of using open source CMS technologies. Since 2010 we have had extensive experience with two open source CMS products (WordPress and Umbraco) and two open source e-commerce products (nopCommerce and Magento.) Based on that experience we now favour only Umbraco and nopCommerce.

What is "open source"?

"Open-source software (OSS) is computer software with its source code made available and licensed with a license in which the copyright holder provides the rights to study, change and distribute the software at no cost to anyone and for any purpose." - Wikipedia

Advantages of open source CMS 

  • Portability: a website developed on an open source CMS platform can be moved from host to host and agency to agency as required by the user
  • Cost: there are usually no licence fees to use an open source CMS, and extending the functionality is often a matter of implementing free or low cost code extensions available from online code markets for the CMS in question 
  • Extensibility: the functionality of an open source-based website is limited only by the imagination and capabilities of the developer, and the budget of the user
  • Support: the agency that builds your open source website will have access to the community of other developers using the same platform to help them support your site - a massive resource that you ultimately benefit from.

Disadvantages of open source CMS

  • Security: it can be argued that building your website on the most widely used open source CMS products increases the likelihood of exposing it to malicious attacks by hackers or denial of service exploits. 

What is "proprietary"?

"Proprietary software or closed source software is computer software licensed under exclusive legal right of the copyright holder with the intent that the licensee is given the right to use the software only under certain conditions, and restricted from other uses, such as modification, sharing, studying, redistribution, or reverse engineering. Usually the source code of proprietary software is not made available." - Wikipedia

Advantages of proprietary CMS 

  • Support: owner-vendors of proprietary CMS software by definition know their product better than anyone else and can therefore guarantee that knowledge as part of a support service  
  • Bespoking: in some specialist markets, a certain proprietary CMS product designed just for that market will deliver exactly what's needed without any modification
  • Security: as a given proprietary CMS will likely be in more limited use globally than a widely-used open source CMS, there is an argument that websites built on such proprietary products are less vulnerable to potential security breaches. 

Disadvantages of proprietary CMS

  • Lock-in: the most obvious disadvantage of a proprietary CMS is its inability to be moved away from its owner-vendor, tying the user into a relationship with that vendor and forcing them to rebuild rather than migrate in the event of a relationship failure with the vendor agency or any other change of circumstances
  • Cost: as you are effectively paying for the right to use the software, there is usually a licence fee to be paid for the use of the software
  • Inflexibility: it is normally the case that any user-specific new functionality required by the CMS user would need to be developed from scratch, unless the vendor already happened to have it on the shelf and was prepared and able to let it be re-used
  • Risk 1: whilst open source CMS products are typically developed by a core team with continuous contributions and improvements from the community at no charge, web agencies developing their own CMS software are normally limited to in-house resources or paid contractors, limiting their ability to keep up with the best open source products 
  • Risk 2: there is usually a single genius coder behind the architecture and code base of an agency-developed proprietary CMS, implying substantial risk to the CMS user in the event of that individual no longer being available to develop and debug their product.

Overall, after almost thirteen years in the industry, we at Webreality are more convinced than ever that the future of web content management systems, for all but the very largest implementations, lies with open source.

What do you think?