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Open source or commercial - which CMS is best?

Author -  Labyrinth Solutions

In short, our view is;  if you are a developer or employ in house developers who intend to get ‘under the bonnet’ to tinker and modify with the code, then open source will most likely be the best solution. A commercial system typically denies developer access to the code.

However, if you want marketing people, and other non-technical people to manage the site and you don’t want the added expense and time delays with developers being involved, then a turn-key commercial CMS such as Contegro will probably provide the best solution.

Still not sure? – the points below outline some other considerations that should help you decide which option might work best for you.

  1. Open source advocates generally cite the benefit of the user being able to make changes to the core. But the user runs the very real risk that they will be taking the CMS down a unique route, with the customised changes affecting other areas of the site too. This can then make updates and fixes to the site difficult to apply, involving more and more specialised help from developers – rarely a cheap exercise! As that becomes an obstacle, it tends to mean that these updates and fixes don’t get applied to the site, resulting in the CMS environment becoming dated and issues being left unresolved. A commercial CMS generally restricts access and changes to the core, therefore providing a consistent platform in which to apply updates and fixes to keep the environment up to date with the latest technology and feature offerings.
  2. A commercial product’s viability is typically dependent on the provider’s ability to deliver solutions that the end clients require, and then to provide support and on-going development. Open source projects are often ‘developer’ focused rather than end user, and therefore the drivers are around the developers requirements. In addition, for the reasons mentioned above, open source projects often tie in the developers to a greater extent with the general upkeep and on-going support of the website. The result –timeframes and on-going expenses around the upkeep of the website can soon away the perceived benefits of open source.
  3. Support services. A commercial CMS provider has so much to lose if they don’t provide excellent levels of support and training for their products. This can often be lacking with open source providers. Further, if you’ve been using an in house open source developer to customise applications particular to your requirements, real issues can arise when the developer leaves taking their knowledge with them. Often their work is not as documented and forward planned as with commercially focused developments.
  4. Supposedly Open Source is cheaper! Perhaps short term, but again, for the reasons above not necessarily long term. Also, a criticism levelled against commercial CMS’s is the on-going annual fee. It is important to note that not all commercial CMS systems charge an annual license fee or where they do this often relates to maintenance and support. When you consider the cost and peace of mind that  annual maintenance agreements provide versus the cost of contracting a developer when changes and updates are required, it maybe the more cost effective option.
  5. With a commercial CMS, there is accountability – generally before any release, they will have gone through many rounds of testing. After all, there is a name to be sullied if the product fails! In addition, if there are defects or issues, you know precisely who to talk to.  Often accountability with open source developments is much harder to track down, especially as many of the ‘community’ developers are not professional developers, merely ‘hobbyists’.
  6. A commonly cited strength of open source is that it has a much wider install base and is therefore tried and tested. However, a good commercial system that has been around for at least several years, will also have a tried and tested client base. And remember, it’s not always the number of clients that count,  it’s the satisfaction levels of these clients that really matters!
  7. Open source applications are typically developed for the 60 – 70% of common functionalities, meaning that further development work is required to achieve precisely what the client might need. Commercial applications on the other hand, certainly in Contegro’s case, are written for the 90 - 95% of common functionalities within each module. This means the solution is generally a turn key solution from the start and the need for any development modifications minimised.

So, we’ve discussed quite a few reasons now regarding the conceptual choice for your CMS. Whatever your initial preferences might be, our suggestion is always to ask the various providers to demo their CMS platforms to you. As it’s you who will be managing your site ongoing, does it present well? Does it look easy enough for you to use? Does it have the flexibility you want? Does it contain work flow options? Our advice is to ask as many questions as you can at the demo, don’t just sit back and allow yourself to be taken through the standard demo routine. Asking questions outside of the norm will really reveal how flexible the system is.

please contact us if you want any further help.


3:28 p.m. Thursday, 4 November 2010

I've been aware of this debate for some time as we recently looked at CMS systems for our project. We chose to go with an open source solution based on cost and the concept of the open source community all out their contributing their ideas. However, not sure we necessarily made the right choice now - wish I'd read this a few months back!

Kevin Trye,

3:29 p.m. Thursday, 4 November 2010

Interesting. I'm a big fan of open source, but have worked on others too. Open source is often quicker to setup where the featureset demands are less, which likely suits the small business market more. Open source websites using Drupal, Joomla and especially WordPress are easy to update and maintain, providing they've been well structured in the first place. They often are not well built, being a reflection of the individual developer, not so much a problem with the open source bit. It's often the little things about open source I love. e.g. The fact I can edit a WordPress or Joomla CMS site just using an iPhone app. Perhaps these features are not appropriate for big business sites, but for the little guy, on a limited budget, is superb. Commercial CMS systems do make more sense for major Corporates or companies where control of content, tight integration and interactivity with in-house systems, assets and expert support is needed. However I think the bigger question these days is not so much commercial vs open source but why CMS vs static html sites. We designers, as opposed to web developers, should be better informed on the merits of CMS. These design tools should only be used to help build a template/theme for a CMS site, be it commercial or open source. It's not only better for the client, but often a faster build time too once you go beyond 5-10 pages. (And could likely provide him/her a bigger margin). Like so much in software these days, each has its place... There's no one-size-fits-all.

Labyrinth Solutions,

2:47 p.m. Friday, 5 November 2010

Hi Kevin,

Thanks for your feedback. Yes, I totally agree with you - there are certainly times when open source wins; it does have some distinct advantages. I don't think size necessarily has too much of a bearing on the CMS environment, more so the needs of that organisation, and the skill level of the people within it. As mentioned, a site requiring a high degree of customisation might not suit the more out of the box commercial system. Neither would a company with ready access to skilled programmers.

But for the organisations wanting to concentrate on their core activities, a fully supported, out of box solution, as is generally provided with a commercial system - like Contegro for example would almost certainly be the best fit.

Regarding static or CMS sites - although not everyone has a desire to regularly update their sites, having it built on a CMS means that whether they use it themselves or not, when they do want changes to be made, it is simple and quick for their website provider to do it for them, and therefore much cheaper. We now build all our sites on a CMS irrespective of whether the client initially requires it. For those that don't we simplyfy things by not giving them access. If they do, or decide at a later date they do, its simply a matter of giveing them access, and a little training and off they go.


9:25 a.m. Friday, 6 May 2011

It could be a nice post if the Author had been fair to both sides. The post typically favors commercial cms. I have been with open source cms for quite a long time and it seems most of the points the Author mentioned against open source, sorry to say, are not all that true. Spitting out the strength of one against the weakness of the other is really not a nice way to educate the public. For example, it is rather easy to find support for open source cms than commercial cms. I mean with the thousands of users and hundreds of developers who are freely available and glad to help out, how can such system have supporting as a limitation. There is no boundary to support in open source cms. It seems to me a debate for commercial cms.

Labyrinth Solutions

11:52 a.m. Monday, 9 May 2011

Hi Michael,

 Thanks for taking the time to comment on this article and I hope you don't mind me explaining our position on the area of support as its the area you particularly mention.

It's true, as an end user using a professional website company to build and support your site, you should be able to expect a high level of support from them whatever the platform type used in the build. However, it's the level of support that the website company itself receives that is often the issue.

Not all website companies have their own in house developers - many are more design focused than development. This applies particularly to branding specialists and advertising agencies, together with smaller website companies. Often such businesses will use open source because of the wide availability of the functionality they require. However, when they need support - perhaps because one module doesn't integrate seamlessly with another, or there are difficulties managing an upgrade, who do they turn to ? There is no supplier as such so they have to refer to the forums that you alluded to in your email.

Feedback we've had from many such companies is that this can be very frustrating. As is often the case in forums, different people have different opinions or methodology, and importantly few developers are trained at customer support. Forums are fine when all are at the same level - all technical geeks (no disrespect), but not for those that aren't.

On the opposite side of the fence, most commercial systems that we know of, especially Contegro, have in place designated support persons able to deal with both other website providers and end users. In addition, as a commercial systems business model is centered around successful use of its products it remains far more motivated to solve any problems than a community of developers who don't always have that same focus.

Thanks again Michael, nice to hear from you.

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