The Battle of Open Source vs. Proprietary Systems

The Cold War of the Web Rages On

by Matthieu McClintock

A Content Management System (CMS), sometimes known as a Digital Experience Manager (DX Manager) is ideally built to empower and enable companies and organizations to build out their web presence and “manage” the content of the digital experiences they deliver to their end users on the web every day.

Typically requiring no coding knowledge , CMS Systems and DX Managers have become the rage amongst company marketers and content authors. Through the use of a Content Management System, all of your online content is in your hands. This crossing of the chasm between a traditional model of expensive third-party agencies and developers dictating your web presence and you finally taking the reigns is a tectonic shift in marketing.

However, the decision is no longer whether you need a CMS System or DX Manager or not; that’s already been settled. The debate has shifted to using an open-source CMS platform or a proprietary CMS platform. First, it’s important to understand the difference between open source and proprietary platforms:

Proprietary Systems

  • Built and maintained by a single company.
  • Typically do not allow access to the source code, although the best of them provide an open framework (or API) that means they can be extended by others.
  • Typically hosted by the company that created them, although some can be hosted elsewhere.
  • Typically require a license fee of some sort, although it is often built into the hosting charges.

Open Source Systems

  • Built and maintained by groups of developers or individual developers. While there is typically one group, they belong to no one.
  • The source code is available to all. Anyone with the skills and time can extend and modify the code and create new functionality as required.
  • You can host an open source web site with just about any ISP or hosting company on their servers or your own.
  • Although seemingly free— Customization, design, and hosting are not.

There are pros and cons for each, and which is best for you will depend on your requirements. Now we’ll do a quick breakdown of pros and cons for each so you make your choice based on your organizational and business needs simply based on the facts!

Proprietary Systems

The key issue with proprietary systems is that you must be comfortable with the company behind them. They must have the size and expertise to not only keep your website running, but be able to invest in the continual development of the product. You also need to understand that you probably can’t move your website elsewhere, so at least make sure you have ownership over the design and content.

A Proprietary solution will be best for you if:

  • Your online presence is important to you, but not necessarily your whole business.
  • Your online presence is your business, but you just need to focus on the content not the technology and your functional needs are met by the software.
  • You have no interest in the technology behind it and just want to take care of the content (and the rest of your business).
  • You don’t want to deal with updates, bugs and security issues and want a full service hosting plan.
  • You don’t want to deal with decisions on which modules may be best, or deal with issues like upgrading the platform.
  • You want to just pick a solution and a partner and have it tick away in the background for the next several years, but also have the technology stay up to date.

Key issues with Proprietary solutions include:

  • Companies and software solutions come and go. You must have confidence in the company offering the solution and that they will both be around and able to continually invest in the product.
  • You need to ensure you have ownership and access to the content and design should you decide to move on for any reason. Many companies will not provide this by default.
  • You may have little option for software enhancements or customizations or they may be very expensive. You are likely to be limited to the standard modules and functionality available, so make sure the solution is comprehensive and being continuously improved.

Open Source

There are a number of popular open source platforms, including Wordpress, Joomla, Drupal, DotNetNuke, and many many more. Which one is best will typically depend on who you ask. So when is an open source solution best for you?

  • You want a solution that is quick and cheap up front and don’t mind using a basic template design to get started. Recommended only for the smallest of businesses that just need an online brochure to get started.
  • You have the time and expertise to create your own website from one of the template sites (technically not quite open source — while they are typically based on Wordpress they lock you into a proprietary host).
  • Your blog is your business, in which case you really should use Wordpress.
  • You are comfortable making choices about technology including add-ons and enhancements and hosting.
  • You have a plan to keep the software updated for bugs, security issues and enhancements.

Key issues with open source:

  • You get what you pay for. Building a website on an open source solution is not free, but basic template sites are very cheap. They also look cheap. Expect to pay well for a good, unique design.
  • Support and upgrades to the software are typically not included. While there are thousands of developers in the open source community enhancing the software, none of them are working on your website. Your website will remain on the version it was installed on, complete with any bugs and security issues. If you want access to the latest enhancements you will typically have to pay for them.
  • While you have access to the source code, the design may not be yours. Template websites in particular have this problem, and you often cannot move the design to another host and definitely not to another platform. You also typically cannot use the design on printed material or elsewhere. If you are getting custom design make sure you own it and not the designer/developer.
  • The majority of web developers using open source solutions are not actually software developers. While they may be experts at customizing the design and working with various modules, they will not be able to develop truly custom software or fix bugs and other shortcomings. They will be reliant on the platform’s developer community (if one exists) for that.
  • In theory you can move your website to another developer if unhappy. In reality this can be difficult due to design ownership, customizations and modules, and because each developer has their own preference for and knowledge of the various systems and add-ons/plugins. Moves that do not involve a redesign and/or rebuild are rare.
  • Pick the wrong software and in 2–3 years time you might find the developer community has moved on and development has stalled (hence the recommendation above to choose Wordpress which is unlikely to lose favor any time soon).

Conclusion

The key with a proprietary solution is to pick the right company with the complete product set and the capacity to continue to support and develop the solution. Selecting a proprietary CMS platform with a comprehensive set of out out of the box functionality and an intuitive User Interface backed by a stable software company with a solid track record is ideal.

The key with open source solutions is to pick both the right technology, and the right partner to assist you with it, a partner that will be around indefinitely. At the moment the technology favorite is Wordpress, and there is no shortage of companies working with it (some good, and many that struggle).

About Solodev

Solodev is a software company that aims to help enterprises, agencies, and developers build better websites through our recently launched Knowledge Center, a consistent resource for code and best practices to help you build better websites.

Learn more about the best ways to improve your website’s ability to inform, educate, and/or entertain by visiting or subscribing to The Solodev Knowledge Center.