Industry Insights

Open Source vs. Proprietary CMS Models: Choosing the Best-Fit Solution

Jade Carter

By Jade Carter

July 27, 2015

Written by Peter Urquhart, CMS Integration Developer at Falcon-Software

Choosing the right, 'best-fit' CMS can be crucial towards the bottom line of your business. In order to make an informed decision that will help rather than hurt your bottom line, it’s important that you weigh the pros and cons as they apply to the specific needs of your business before choosing.

So, What Solution Does Your Business Really Need?

It’s important to get past the marketing hype and seek answers to questions that address the specific needs of your business.
Some important questions to consider previous to the selection of a CMS as they relate to your business could include:

  • What are its lead generation capabilities
  • How to leverage its features to help close more sales
  • How can it help increase your brand awareness
  • Can it help reduce labor requirements
  • Will it add cost-effective value or cost-inefficient overhead
  • How can it enhance your marketing processes
  • How well does it integrate with other business (B2B requirements)
  • How well does it perform with payment handling and order fulfillment
  • Does it meet the needs of the business - now and in the future
  • How well does it harness and connect big data
  • Does it help you analyze data in ways that help your business grow
  • How easy is it to make site modifications to meet changing business needs
  • Is it a secure system that has robust performance

These can all sound like pretty important questions - and they are - they are some of the most significant things to ask about a CMS as they apply towards your business. But wait a minute. While some of these commonly sought features can greatly help your business, they are not necessarily what your business actually needs - nor do they address other important areas of your business that the right CMS can assist with. So it’s important to ask a bigger question first:
“What are all of the things a CMS can do to help improve and enhance my business, and how can it do that?”
It might seem obvious, but the answer to that question is a result of analyzing your specific business model and goals in conjunction with discussions around which CMS offerings are the most suitable for your requirements and budget.
In a future article I’ll discuss all of this in detail as it relates to various scenarios and business models. For now, I’ll just assume you’ve identified that your business would benefit from at least one or more of the points above. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty of what this article is about – helping you determine the importance of a proprietary or open source content management system towards your business goals.

Primary CMS Model Differences

You might be surprised and possibly even disappointed to hear that the primary differences are actually not about overall cost. That’s right, it’s just not that simple (unfortunately) - so let me explain.
Because proprietary systems generally offer more “out of the box”, they are able to offset lifetime costs through feature-rich capabilities and ongoing development at a relatively little cost to the licensee - you pay more upfront, less later. On the other hand, open source offerings are able to offset initial purchase costs but often have unrealized costs - they require more resources and maintenance over the life time as you identify feature gaps that are normally already taken care of within proprietary systems - you pay less up front, pay more later.
When considering the total cost of ownership, this is why proprietary and open source offerings can often be considered similar in the amount of overall expenditures that are required when talking in general, and are only part of the full equation - because without knowing more about your business’s needs, it’s just as possible that the TCO in relation to its return on investment could become dramatically different.
Let’s dig a little deeper in order to get a clearer picture. Where the variances can really begin to surface are in the licensing aspects and model differences. These variances are where your focus should be, so we’ll start with the licensing aspects first.

Licensing Aspects of Open Source vs Proprietary

A proprietary CMS is software offered by an individual or company that maintains control over its development, usage, and distribution. Although there are cases where viewing and editing the source code is permitted, most licensing requirements of proprietary software do not allow viewing or changing the source code, and have specific limitations in the way that it’s used.
An open source CMS on the other hand is software offered by an individual, company or group, that encourages the viewing and modification of its source code - allowing software developers to view and customize the core CMS as they wish for their own projects. As with proprietary software, there are licensing requirements involved. Depending on the licensing model, it may also allow and even require that you supply the source code of your customizations to others if you are to alter and share it.   
As you can see these are two very different approaches to licensing. But how do they affect you? Let’s talk about some of the specific differences between the models now so we can start to draw a better picture and help you figure out what’s more suitable for your company. We’ll assume that we’re talking about mature codebases that have already passed the test of time and proven their worth to business, because if they haven’t - why would you risk your business on them?

CMS Model Differences

  Proprietary CMS Open Source CMS
Feature Set Specific features have been developed into the CMS that tackle the majority of the needs of the target business without requiring further development. Custom APIs often exist, allowing external developers to focus on specific customizations that carry through upgrades, rather than having to focus on core “plumbing” development.  
Specific core features can be integrated directly into the CMS using the services of a developer. On the other hand, these integrations can often result in significant refactoring requirements when upgrading the site in order to avoid breaking of features or causing site failures.

Security Risks Security flaws are often less easy to identify from an exploitation standpoint due to code obfuscation and binary compilation. Binaries are still reverse engineerable but provide a layer of obscurity that is harder to overcome. Response time is generally fast.

Security flaws can be easier to identify for exploitation purposes, however, they are also usually found faster and fixed due to the source code being available to view openly and repaired by others. Over time, this can result in a stronger code base that is more resistant to security attacks. Response time is generally fast.
Implementation Costs Installation, upgrades, and custom development integrations are normally well thought out to reduce involvement time and developer requirements, and provide an improved customer experience.
Installation and upgrades often encompass technical challenges that require moderate technical skills. Being open source, custom development is inherent and easily leveraged. Customer experience is often frustrating.
Customer Support Better support means better customer satisfaction. Since customer satisfaction with their purchase is important in the long term survival of the CMS, customer support is more often than not much faster and better handled.
Customer support is generally not a strong point due insufficient resources; however with a popular CMS it is frequently possible to purchase specialized customer support that matches support options available from a proprietary system.  
Documentation Documentation is structured to help make things as easy as possible and tackle the simplest to the most complex tasks. As well, internet community provided documentation is frequently available.
Documentation is often lacking due to resources, however if technically oriented, the internet community has often already documented how to achieve what you are trying to accomplish.
Big Data Most contain powerful features that handle big data in valuable ways.

Powerful features that handle big data in valuable ways are often still in infancy if available.
Sustainability Sustainability is generally measured by the long term effectiveness of its featured capabilities and ongoing satisfaction of its target market.
Sustainability is generally measured by the long term relevance in the application of its features and ongoing interest from developers and the target market.
Performance and Scalability Companies use performance as an advantage to market their product over others and is high on the priority list throughout the CMS. Scalability is a consideration that helps sell more product and thus is also high on the priority list.
Performance often varies between different components due to the large amount of contributors towards various aspects of the CMS. Scalability is frequently fragmented and inadequately handled due to the complexities involved and the lack of available resources.


In Conclusion

It’s important to consider the overall life cycle demands of your business and looking at which specific CMS platform meets your business needs best rather than choosing one over the other if you don’t have specific reasons to do so.

While making your comparisons, it’s also important to keep your current budget at the forefront and the long term costs in mind. This will help shortlist suitable contenders, and provide a more realistic view towards what you can achieve now as well as in the future during your selection of a CMS.
So what do you think? I’d be interested to hear what you have to say and would be glad to answer any questions you have - join in on the discussion and add your comments below!


Jade Carter

Jade Carter

Jade is a content writer for CMS-Connected, facilitating the needs of the company blog. Bringing 10 years of Search and Digital Marketing to the table, he strives to build informative, relevant and fun editorial posts for the blog feed. Jade is an ultra distance (26.2 miles+) trail runner and lives to run trails in and around his home town of Victoria, BC.

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