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Open Source versus Closed Source CMS

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By Tristan Bottrell
Head of Technology

Open Source versus Closed Source. Like Holden versus Ford; Apple versus Microsoft; vanilla versus chocolate, the debate has been around for years, with die-hard fans on either side for the most part driven by nothing more than personal preference.

To an uninformed observer there doesn't appear to be any real difference between the two, on the surface at least. But for us experts there is plenty to discuss (and or argue about). Once we take bias out of the equation we can actually develop up a useful comparative list of the two.

But first thing is first, for those already lost let me give a very brief overview on what 'open source' and 'closed source' (proprietary) is in terms of a Content Management System (CMS).

'Open source' systems are built and then openly backed by a community of developers who extend and add on to the product’s original design. If you’re lucky a commercial arm will eventually back the product and offer paid for services.

Think of systems like Drupal, WordPress and Joomla.

Essentially a 'closed source' system is built by a company that packages it up and sells it to you with a one off or ongoing license. These packages offer support services, different pricing tiers, product training and usually help with future upgrades.

Some of the more common systems are Sitecore, Sitefinity, Kentico and Adobe Experience Manager.

So which way should you go? Let’s do a good old pros and cons list and see:

Open Source: Pros

  • Evolving marketplace
    The Involvement of communities of developers to extend and supply plugins for the system mean someone somewhere would have likely built something similar to what you want already, which you can reuse.
  • Cost
    Open Source is free. (To start.) If your budget is tight and the thought of ongoing license fees is out of the question then this is clearly a significant benefit.
  • Flexibility
    If you have the know-how you can pretty much make the system do whatever you want, with enough development budget.

Closed Source: Pros

  • Well-funded
    Trust me this is a pro! For a commercial endeavour to succeed in IT the product needs to be reliable, usable, well priced and supported by good service. These companies have development and design teams working day in, day out to not only build a stable platform but to continually improve it.
  • Feature rich
    Most proprietary products have more features than their open source counter parts, for example: in-page editing, analytics, in-built marketing, personalisation and more.
  • High security
    Due to the first point, security is a priority for these products where reputation and valuable data are on the line. Patches are quick to come should a hole in security be detected.

Open Source: Cons

  • Security concern
    Because there is no review process for plugins and extensions there are no guarantees of 100% security. Essentially, you are trusting that a developer somewhere is good at what they do. WordPress, for example, is the most popular CMS on the planet and is also the most hacked*.
    * -
  • Comparatively feature poor
    These free systems are in a constant game of catch-up to the big boys in terms of the latest and greatest features. Unfortunately, without the research and development budgets they just can't compete here.
  • Usability
    This one may ignite some arguments, but following on from the above point, without the big budgets of closed systems, open source systems generally aren't as straight forward and obvious to use, nor as pretty. Be prepared for forms based content editing.

Closed Source: Cons

  • Cost
    This is a big one for most. Depending on the system and feature level a decent proprietary system will cost you anything from $2,000 to $200,000 plus.
  • Hosting and support
    These costs are typically higher than an open source alternative. Naturally, the bigger the system and the more features it has, the more resources it requires to run. This can vary but you may be looking at a multi-server setup with the complexity and costs associated.
  • Flexibility
    I add this last point somewhat reluctantly. A closed system does not mean it can't be extended or customised, far from it. But there may be parts of the system that aren't as easy to change. Also, finding a partner to take over development may be harder due to the learning curve for the developers.
Open Source CMS Closed Source CMS
Pros Cons Pros Cons
Readily available options Security concerns Well-funded High Cost
Low cost Feature poor Feature rich Hosting and support costs
Flexibility Usability High security Less flexibility

There is clearly an argument for both sides.

Just to evidence the deliberation: recently Equilibrium was asked to tender for a large utility company for an enterprise level closed source system.

In this case a closed system was ideal; it met all the requirements and provided the client with a great platform from which they could build. However, ultimately cost was the deciding factor against the system's use. As a result, we needed to look at an alternative solution.

Enter Umbraco.

Umbraco is an open source CMS, with a difference. It is based on Microsoft .NET technology and backed by a corporate entity, so it provides all the benefits of an open system, while also neutralising most of the cons.

Umbraco doesn't come without compromises, of course.

It does not have a large R&D budget, so some features are left out, but fortunately this is limited to 'nice to have'type features like personalisation, not essential features. It also loses out on in-page editing, which would have made updating site content a breeze, particularly for more visually oriented editors. Nevertheless, we've had great success with Umbraco.

The moral of the story is no one tool fits all and when it comes to any technology choice a thorough discovery and requirements phase is crucial to settling on the right option for you.

For more information contact:

Tristan Bottrell

Equilibrium | Head of Technology
(08) 9218 8917
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