Shades of grey in CMS: open source vs proprietary

Text originally posted on http://blog.omnicom.rs
No pictures were retrieved after the blog was taken down.

Website is to be modern – CMS is for life.

Well, not really for life; who knows what technologies the future brings? But the truth is: once you have a good, stable, secure and user friendly Content Management System, you can easily redesign the site several times to follow current trends, while keeping the back-end unchanged, or slightly altered. When you put it like that, it’s easy to conclude that a good CMS is a worthy investment. But, do you really need to pay for it?

Having worked for 7 years in Omnicom, whose proprietary CMS, Omnicom Content Platform (OCP), plays a very important role in its business model, I should write a strongly opinionated article about how good proprietary software is. However, not everything is as black or white as some people might want you to think. The articles and blog posts that I stumbled across in my little research, often held one side without even dignifying the other of a proper analysis. Even worse, they often stated bad characteristics of either open source or proprietary software that are not or are just partly true. Misinformation on the internet travels fast.

So, what are these shades of grey that both open source and proprietary CMS have?

First of all, I don’t understand the talk about “open source” or “proprietary” in general, with no distinction between good or bad programming, UI design, and many other factors. It is not possible to just make two baskets and mark them “open source” and “proprietary”, and then choose the better one. I could, on the other hand, analyse all, find the best of both worlds, and state my preferences. Unfortunately, we are just short-lived humans and could not, if we tried, manage to test all the solutions that currently exist on the market. This is the reason I will talk about what I know and have used. Until now, I have extensively used: Joomla, WordPress and Textpattern (in the OS sector), and OCP, Sitecore and Microsoft Sharepoint Portal (among the proprietary).

Open source CMS: “Why should I pay if it is free?”

Open source Content Management Systems (or OS software, for that matter) are freely available on the internet for everyone to see the source code and join in the development. Their programming is done mostly by enthusiasts, experts or hobbyists, who want to make this world a better place. Or who are building up their own CV and experience. Either case, these people put a lot of effort into something that is not paid, but instead of thanking them, many fans of proprietary software would point at that as the main fault: “would you trust someone to do a good job if they are not paid for it?”. I would. There is, usually, a body, company, organisation, in charge of unifying this work and making the whole thing work. Also, would you do a better job if you knew that your code will be subject to potential criticism from fellow developers from around the world, or if you just needed to make it work in the shortest possible time and then hide the code from curious eyes?

The usual argument against open source CMS is security. If everyone can see the code, that surely means that everyone can find the holes in its security. The good side of it is that there are probably as many people (if not more) working on fixing these holes, as there are people trying to exploit them. This proportion usually favours the exploiting side in cases of proprietary CMS, even though peeking into the code there is much more difficult.

Now we come to the part everyone likes: open source CMS is free. Yes, it is, in its simplest form. Any of the ones that I mentioned above could be downloaded from the internet and installed on a server without additional costs, apart from the hosting itself. Many hosts even offer a ready-to-go installation of WordPress or Joomla. But that’s not all you need.

Who will do your design? What functionality will your site need? Who will do the maintenance and regular updating of the software? Even if you plan on doing all the work in-house, there is still a question of whether that is really “free”, or could that time be better spent working for clients.

When it comes to development of complex websites, it might just be possible to finish everything with free plugins for open source CMS-s. However, you have to be aware of a few downsides of that approach:

  • Plugins come and go. You can easily end up not having support for the plugin you need. Or it can stop working with new versions of the CMS. It can become commercial or you will find out that it’s commercial just for what you need, while free for basic usage.
  • If your site needs many plugins, they will, eventually, start making problems to each other. They can also become very heavy, and slow down the site altogether. That’s bad for the end user experience, and for that reason Google has starting paying a lot of attention to site loading speed. Here’s how it goes: if you made a plugin that does what you want, it would contain a short code that does exactly that. If, on the other hand, you download a pre-made plugin that can be customized to do what you want, be aware that there is a big chunk of unused code in it, which allows it to be customized to other people’s needs too. Multiply that by the number of installed plugins, and you’ll see that it’s a lot of unnecessary weight that can get damage your site’s ranking in search results.

It’s often a better choice to pay for the right plugin or to someone to develop the perfect plugin for you, then to have a long term consequence for trying to save money in the short term.

Bear in mind that free Content Management Systems are often more user friendly for day-to-day site updating, but there is less support in case of particular problems that may arise in the course of using it. In fact: the whole world is your support, but you are no-one’s priority. There are companies that offer support for open source software for a charge, and if you choose open source – that might be the way to go.

However, among the CMS-s I’ve tried, I found that WordPress is the most versatile, most complete and most user friendly. Some programmers might hate it, some might like it, but no-one can deny that it’s currently taking over the free CMS-s world. Some smaller ones have disappeared, but I can’t see that happening to WordPress any time soon.

Proprietary CMS: do you always get what you pay for?

In an ideal world: yes. In real life: you should carefully choose your partners and do a good research of their references and experience. Many Content Management Systems were developed and then abandoned by their creators, leaving the clients dissatisfied and with no other solution but to invest in their web presentation once more.

The good thing about a CMS developed especially for your needs and according to your specifications is that you get a turnkey product. You will never hire a company to develop a CMS, unless you want website development too. It most often goes together with web design, so you don’t need to think of that as a separate cost. When it comes to maintenance and updating, they depend on the contract you have with your web development company. However, no company can deny bug fixing in the shortest possible time and for no charge at all, which you will rarely (or more likely: never) get from developers around the world who supplied you with free solutions. If you happen to have a problem, it’s always reassuring to know who to blame.

You will also, in most cases, be trained in using the software after the development is finished, if you will be the one updating your own site. This is not the case with free or open source solutions.

People often state that “mobility” or more accurately possibility to change the web development company while keeping the same CMS is doable with open source, while usually impossible with proprietary. This is not strictly true. Try taking a code made by one programmer to another programmer in the same company. They would surely have many comments and changes, and, if the two are on good terms, will probably try not to be rude about the code they are looking at. That’s just within a company. If you tried to get your site, developed by company X, updated by Y, you will probably be offered to have the entire site redone, whichever CMS it was on in the beginning.

According to what I’ve seen until now, there seems to be no good open source solution for big multi-lingual sites. This is especially true in cases where the big company wishes to have the same design throughout the world, but wants to have different companies in different countries as web administrators. These companies, then, need full permissions for site administration, but only for their own country version.

These are just my thoughts and experiences. If you happen to have different opinions, join the debate in comments.

P.S. Depending on your site’s needs, Omnicom can offer you a web solution on either our proprietary Omnicom Content Platform (OCP) or on an open source CMS (WordPress or Joomla).