Is WordPress the Right Solution for an Enterprise Company?
A few days ago, I came across an article entitled "Can WordPress Support Enterprise Needs?" It’s a fair question and I have my own thoughts on that so I was excited to dive in to see what they had to say. Now, I respect the reporter that wrote the article but I think that, on this occasion, the article in question fell short of its obligations in a couple of areas, and I'd like to fill in the gaps.
First of all, if you're going to discuss whether something is enterprise-fit, then you should probably spend some time explaining what you think enterprises need, so you can establish some kind of benchmark against which to evaluate a candidate. Secondly, you need to take a position. If you start out by posing a question that suggests a yes/no answer, then you need to answer "yes" or "no" by the end of the piece. While I think the article raised a really important question that I hear frequently in enterprise CMS conversations, it ultimately turned out to be one of those, "Here are some pros. Here are some cons. You decide."-type articles that leaves the reader no clearer at the end of the day. I'm all for objective, unbiased journalism, especially in this era of Fake News (did you like my needless capitalization?), but I also think that there's a place for thought leadership and opinion, where there is an opportunity to hear from people with depth and experience in the space, who can take a position and explain why they feel that way.
I've been in the for-profit commercial enterprise space for over thirty-five years. For more than half of that time I've been directly involved with designing, building, launching and operating direct marketing initiatives, of which many of those years have been spent overseeing the implementation of web content management systems for enterprise companies. So, I have a strong stance on "Can WordPress Support Enterprise Needs?" My answer is "no", and here's why:
4 Reasons WordPress is Not an Enterprise CMS Platform
First of all, what does an enterprise need from a content management platform? Does it need the latest and greatest functionality widget? Does it need the most bleeding-edge language and technology capabilities – AI, anybody? For an academic, in-depth answer to this question, I highly recommend "Critical Capabilities for Web Content Management Systems" by Mick MacComasaigh at Gartner. For me, though, I think it boils down to four key areas:
Is WordPress stable?
Firstly, enterprises absolutely DO NOT need the latest and greatest bleeding-edge technology widget. We've all heard the adage that most people only use 15% of their word processor's full capability. The same thing applies in the world of web content management. Most use cases in a large organization are straightforward. Rapid creation of pages by non-technical users; ability to customize content on the fly according to pre-defined rules and user preferences; rich (ideally automated) support for metadata tagging. And so on. It just needs to work, and work well consistently.
What users don't need are flaky capabilities that are finicky, difficult to use, error-prone if you don't get it just right, or likely to break every time the system is patched or upgraded. While the range of contributed plugins for Wordpress is vast, the ecosystem is not particularly well-policed and this results in bizarre plugin-specific behavior that is often difficult to use, sometimes poorly supported (or even abandoned) by its developer, and frequently destabilized by the application of even minor patches or upgrades (see below).
Is WordPress secure?
Hands up if you look forward to appearing on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, explaining why your fancy new website just leaked personal data on all your customers, especially if they're protected under the GDPR? I didn't think so. Software isn't perfect and fixes for discovered security flaws have become a fact of life in any organization, large or small. No matter how wonderful your CMS is, it's going to have security vulnerabilities, and you need to be able to respond instantly when they are discovered and get fixes in place before bad actors can exploit the issue. Make no mistake, you're in a never-ending arms race. This is perhaps WordPress' biggest weakness. Vulnerabilities are rife. Patches are often very delayed in coming out, and applying them to systems running production solutions is a nightmare. Just a couple of months ago, Hacker News discussed a vulnerability exposing the entire platform to complete takeover by malicious attackers. The vulnerability was identified seven months before a patch was made available. Enough said.
Is WordPress scalable?
When you hear about scalability in a CMS context, most people think in terms of a site's magical ability to expand capacity on-demand to accommodate spikes and surges in traffic, sometimes due to seasonal patterns (Black Friday) or because of a particularly successful marketing campaign (you wish). It might also be a mechanism of managing capacity to deliver a constant end-user performance experience (in financial trading, for example). These scenarios are, of course, important for any business.
A quick Google for "WordPress scalability" will reveal a plethora of articles that talk about content delivery networks (CDNs), caching strategies, and auto-scaling horizontal server farms. Of course, these aren’t exactly the results you’d expect from a platform that scales. They’re more what you’d assume would be returned for the search, "What else can I try to get around the fact that my platform can't scale on its own?" But, WordPress is no better or worse than any other platform in this regard.
For an enterprise company though, there are two other dimensions of scalability, both of which are far more important than what I mentioned above. Firstly, a decent-sized enterprise probably operates hundreds, or even thousands of digital touchpoints and your platform needs the ability to operate at that kind of level without the whole thing crashing down or grinding to a dysfunctional halt. In this respect, WordPress can’t perform as an enterprise solution. Regardless of which approach you try to take - multisite networks or multiple independent sites - you run into problems of shared server resources, tight coupling, and extreme plugin version sensitivity.
There are even whole businesses built around solving the WordPress multiple site management problem. And it's not just websites. Enterprises running hundreds or thousands of sites also typically work with hundreds of digital agencies, especially if they are a global business, and those agencies need to be able to run on their own timescale, not be impeded or impaired by other teams, and not have timelines compromised due to delayed releases or updates by other projects. Again, this is a use case for which WordPress is simply not built to handle.
Can WordPress integrate with legacy applications?
No CMS contains everything you need out of the box (unless your aim is to produce the most trivial of brochure-ware sites). To produce the engaging, highly-personalized, contextually-appropriate experiences today’s brands aspired to deliver, it's inevitable that any digital experience architect will need to integrate a range of third-party systems and services. Some will be external (e.g. marketing automation) but many will be internal, perhaps legacy CRM platforms, customer databases, or transactional systems of record. In some cases, especially with modern third-party services, you will get lucky, and be able to leverage APIs based on technologies like REST, where the PHP-based technology of WordPress is just as effective and practical as any other.
However, when those APIs don't exist, as is almost always the case for internal legacy platforms, the PHP-based programming model of WordPress becomes a distinct liability. In that world, two languages reign supreme - Java and .Net - and if you can't consume the integration libraries offered by the vendor for those technologies, then you're either facing approaches based on primitive and error-prone file exchange or you're contemplating a significant development project: adding a whole new API to a fragile (and often unsupported) legacy technology. Either way, it's not the "right" approach, and will just lead to more problems.
So, there you have it. I firmly believe that WordPress is not capable of supporting the CMS needs of an enterprise company, especially long-term. Whether you agree or disagree with my conclusion, the big takeaway should be that investing in a CMS is a Big Freaking Deal. Beyond the initial investment, you are committing the enterprise to a path that will likely last 5 to 10 years, during which time your choice will impact, for better or worse, every single aspect of digital operations which will be a profound driver of the success or failure, of your entire digital program. No pressure...
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