Proprietary vs. open source WCM

Assessing web content management offerings

It’s a debate that has been going on for years, and one that’s not likely to be resolved anytime soon: Is it more advantageous for today’s companies to rely on an open source or proprietary content management system to manage their websites?

Many love the idea of open source software. It’s free. It’s open. It’s maintained by a community of developers who love what they do. What’s not to love, right?

If that’s the case, how come proprietary vendors are still in business, with many of them doing very well?

As it turns out, open source software is not always so free, proprietary software is not necessarily closed, and help from the open source community isn’t nearly as comprehensive as the level of support you get from a professional vendor.

Nowadays, that’s why open source proponents are quicker to emphasize the customization and integration benefits that come with open source software. They charge proprietary software with being limited to out-of-the-box functionality. While this may be true, it’s a pretty big box!

You can’t argue with the fact that open source web content management (WCM) gives you tremendous flexibility in creating just about any kind of website you can imagine, but most developers aren’t creating simply for the sake of creating. They’re working on behalf of a company or client that must achieve defined business objectives. More than anything else, they need speed and they need ease of use.

In order to compete, proprietary solutions must fulfill those needs, and they must do it in a way that keeps 80 to 90 percent of the market happy. That means, as long as they’re working with decent software, 80 to 90 percent of today’s marketers and developers can get what they need out of proprietary WCM. That also means a competitive solution will have the funds drawn from revenue to continually improve their product so as to accommodate the needs of today’s marketer and developers as their needs grow.

Open source proponents like to say that their software is more agile. Sure, big ships don’t turn as fast as little boats. It does take proprietary vendors a little bit longer to improve and build on their functionality, but their turns are usually much more calculated.

Plus, they’re designed to meet as many of the needs of 80 to 90 percent of the market as possible. Besides, there is such a thing as being too agile. Turn too fast and too often, and you lose focus and direction. Both the industry and the software evolve together as focuses change.

A solid foundation

Every WCM solution must maintain some level of agility in order to compete, and for most people, it’s enough. And even if it’s not, the majority of code for many vendors is freely available. Some even provide full source code options. Sure, there’s a price tag attached, but there’s another big reason why proprietary WCM is a viable alternative to open source:

When working on enterprise-level projects, it’s critical that you’re building on a solid foundation. That means having quality code, seamlessly integrated modules and capabilities, and a network of highly skilled people to do the implementation based on proven standards and best practices, which is a bit more elusive when it comes to open source software.

Anything less than that creates risk — something most companies can’t afford. For example, with open source WCM software, there’s no guarantee that the latest hotfix or update will go smoothly. Or that it’s been protected against the latest security threat.

Developers also need help. This means having dedicated, professional, 24×7 support at their disposal to ensure they’re able to solve business problems as they come up.

Open source often comes with some great community support, but if you’re responsible for the success of a $500,000 project, you can’t wait for someone to get around to responding to your question on a message board. Companies about to invest in large-scale projects, perhaps involving hundreds of individual websites, need the certainty of knowledgeable support that’s typically associated with proprietary solution vendors.

Sure, open source software may seem free, more flexible and even liberating at first glance. But will it serve your company’s needs in the long term? Is the software solid and stable enough to meet your project requirements? Is there a dedicated support organization that you can reach in the 11th hour when you have a mission critical issue on a production site?

For many, knowing there is a company behind the product is a requirement for business that gives them the peace of mind to succeed.

Bryan Soltis is a technical evangelist at Bedford-based Kentico, maker of an all-in-one CMS, e-commerce and Online marketing platform for companies of all sizes both on premise or in the cloud.