Choosing an Open Source Web Content Management System
By JT Smith
The term “open source” carries with it an almost religious
fervor, either for or against the concept. While often
associated with “free,” open source simply means the
source code of the program is available for modification.
Closed source systems indicate that the code is locked,
so most modifications must come from the vendor itself.
In the case of Web content management systems (CMS, WCMS, or WCM) open source can be an enormous boon to your site building efforts, allowing for infinite customization of individual needs. And, open source CMS is often free or comes at very little cost.
CLOSED SOURCE VS. OPEN SOURCE
If your needs are basic, it likely won’t make a difference whether your CMS is open or closed. Likewise, if the software you buy or download includes every nuance and feature you want right out of the box, it also won’t matter. But rarely is that the case in the Web development world. And as businesses grow, needs ultimately change.
If you research CMS features, you will find many equivalent systems in both the closed and open source environment. In both cases, always look for a CMS that has the most of what you want out of the box, is easy to use, and is well supported by both commercial vendors and a knowledgeable community. After those considerations, the open versus closed decision comes into focus.
Whether you need custom functionality at site inception or as your site grows, you will need the ability to personalize your CMS. Any CMS worth its salt will provide a well-documented API to write plugins extending its functionality. However, sometimes the APIs don’t go far enough. Sometimes you need to get your virtual hands dirty.
Using closed source CMS can be likened to buying a new car with the hood welded shut, the wheels permanently attached, and your only maintenance option is a visit to the dealership. With open source you have more options. You’re free to tinker. Even if you don’t own a wrench, the car can be taken to any mechanic in town to get fixed or modified. The same should be true of your CMS. With access to the source code, you can always hire someone to add features, even if you can’t do it yourself.
In times of economic uncertainty, everyone’s budgets are a bit tighter. With any decent-sized website implementation, you will incur three major costs: licensing, development and training. With an open source CMS your license fees will be $0. That frees up your budget for development and training, or for another project.
Finally, all software has bugs. Whether your CMS is open or closed, you might find a patch to fix the bug in a matter of hours, or it could stretch into weeks and months. Time is money. Every minute your website is down, or every feature that doesn’t work means lost business. If you have access to the source code, you can fix problems yourself or hire someone else to do the work.
Objections to open source CMS are not uncommon, but usually focus on some derivation of the three listed below — both from closed source vendors and those fearful of using a non-commercial product for business needs. However, these arguments are largely unfounded.
While open source has no licensing fees, development costs and support fees will be much greater than closed systems.
That might be true, and it might not. It depends greatly on the vendor. Either way, the same could be said of one closed source vendor compared to another one.
If you choose open source, you won’t get commercial support.
While that’s true of some small open source projects, it’s not true of every open source product. Whether open or closed, only choose a vendor with commerciallyavailable support plans in addition to community support.
Open source products are less secure, less stable and of lower quality than closed source products.
Software is software. Whether the source code is released to the public or not has nothing to do with its quality. Some closed source software is terrible — the same can be said of some open source software. In fact, the argument could be made that, because more people are looking at code in an open source CMS, it is less likely to have bugs or security defects.
ENSURING A SUCCESSFUL EVALUATION
There are literally thousands of content products on the market. When you finally narrow it down to the final few, it’s of paramount importance that you choose wisely. Because open source vendors get paid differently than closed source vendors, the pre-sales experience is different as well.
The term “open source” carries with it an almost religious fervor, either for or against the concept. While often associated with “free,” open source simply means the source code of the program is available for modification. Closed source systems indicate that the code is locked, so most modifications must come from the vendor itself.
Closed source vendors get paid as soon as you choose them, in the form of licensing fees. For this reason they will likely have a strong sales pitch. They still earn revenue even if you don’t use their development, support and training services.
Open source vendors, on the other hand, generally don’t get paid unless you decide to use one of their services. So, choosing the product alone likely won’t induce offers of free training, installation or support services. They will still work to get your business; it’s simply a different model. If you know how the system operates, you will be able to traverse it like a pro.
Demos — Whether closed or open, any company worth considering will be happy to demo their product via a webinar. Make sure to view demos with all vendors under consideration. Feel free to request multiple demos and ask plenty of questions. It’s also important that technical, non-technical and management staff view demos to make sure the product fits all of their needs.
Installation — Many closed source vendors are willing to install their software on your server for you. Open source vendors will be less likely to do this, because there is no incentive to do so. Again, simply using their product doesn’t necessarily make them money. Instead, ask if they offer a VMWare appliance to download, or if they have a public demo server set up. Either way, you’ll get to play around with the software to evaluate it, achieving the same result.
Test Site — Some experts suggest asking the vendor to build out a portion of your site for free to show that the software will work the way you expect. It is debatable if this is a valid request or not, but most open source vendors will be reluctant to do so. Signing up for a month of hosting with them is one way to get them to be more amenable to it. It will cost $50 or less, and will show the vendor you aren’t wasting their time.
Vendor Training — Get at least a basic amount of training from any vendor before making a final decision. One easy way to do this is to ask pointed questions during the live demo section of the webinar.
Some vendors offer a one- or two-hour training session for free, while others need some persuasion. An easy way to negotiate training is to purchase a book, if available. It shows the vendor you are conducting a serious evaluation, and it’s an inexpensive resource you will need later if you adopt the CMS.
Community — With open source software, an active and knowledgeable community tends to be one of its greatest strengths. If the software breeds a strong community, chances are good you will have a positive experience. Test this by looking for a community wiki bursting with information. Another easy test is to post a question to the forums, or in their Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel. Even if forums have less than 10,000 posts per day doesn’t mean the community is small or unhelpful. In fact, it can be the opposite. It could mean the community is full of experienced users and experts that don’t have many questions. By posting your own question to the site, you can judge the community based upon the quality of responses.
In the end, you are likely to find CMS products in both the closed and open source spaces that will fit your needs. When making your final choice, perform a thorough evaluation of the open source candidates, in comparison to the closed source vendors. Remember to weigh the advantages of open source with the other considerations. CMS needs will vary with every business, so be sure to address your specific needs, and those of your entire business, for both immediate gains and long-term plans.
About the Author: JT Smith is the president of Plain Black Corp. and the creator of the WebGUI Application Framework. He speaks internationally on the topics of Web content management, Web application development and open source software.