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Proprietary vs Open Source CMS: Which Is Right For You?

By | March 11, 2014

If you read the title of this post and said “Ummm, what now?”, you’re not alone. For the majority of people that don’t deal with web design and development every day, the title of this post is gobbledygook. Proprietary huh? CMS what? But if you’re thinking about getting a website developed, these are some important terms it pays to know. So let’s get started with the basics.

What is a CMS?

CMS stands for Content Management System. You might have heard of  some of the more popular options out there: Joomla, Drupal, Mambo, and our personal favorite, WordPress. Basically, a CMS is what people use to update and maintain content on their websites without needing to know the nitty gritty of CSS and HTML. While it used to be virtually impossible to update websites without at least basic knowledge of how websites are developed and coded, content management systems have made website management much more, well, manageable. They enable the owner to have more control over their content and to update it easily, which makes for better SEO and prevents the owner from having to rely on a web developer for day to day use. Everyone wins!

So what’s the difference between proprietary and open source?

Open source means the source code for the platform is available for everyone to see, modify, and build upon. People around the world can modify and customize the software and redistribute what they’ve created, which results in a large and thriving community of developers and designers. Proprietary or closed source content management systems, however, are owned and developed by individuals and their source code is not available for modification. That means that they own the software and can sell or license it out to people who use it for their sites.

Pros and Cons of Open Source CMS

For the sake of this post we’re going to mostly focus on WordPress as the example for open source platforms, and for good reason. WordPress alone powers 25% of all new websites, with hundreds of thousands being added every day. The Wall Street Journal, CNN and Ford are just a few of the big name companies that use WordPress for their sites. In fact, WordPress commands over half of the CMS market, as opposed to less than 24% for proprietary CMS. So why is it so popular?



(data via Levia)

A couple of reasons:

1. No costly recurring fees. Unlike proprietary systems, you aren’t going to have to pay a recurring fee just to use the software. Unless you plan on DIYing your site (don’t) you’re still going to have to pay for web design, hosting, and domain, but using the software won’t cost you anything extra.

2. Freedom! Glorious freedom. The great thing about using a popular open source platform like WordPress for your website is you can take it with you anywhere. If you leave your web design firm, any developer with WordPress experience will be able to work with what you already have. With a closed source system, you’re locked in. Your proprietary CMS company may give you the HTML, CSS, and images that make up your site if you leave (and if you choose a proprietary system you should definitely make sure this is in your contract), but transitioning your site to a new CMS will be tricky and may not even be possible.

3. Innovation and plugins galore. Open source systems like WordPress are supported by millions of developers globally, which means third party plugins for everything from real estate to ecommerce are constantly being created and refined. While a proprietary system might only have only one or two options for a calendar, WordPress has thousands. On the minus side that means your WordPress developer will have to sift through those options to find the right one with the best documentation for your site, but that’s our problem, not yours. As is always the case with third party content, updates and routine maintenance are necessary, but the options for functionality are virtually endless.
4. Support and community. Although one of the main selling points of proprietary systems is their dedicated support, WordPress has the advantage of a massive and engaged community with a larger knowledge base to draw on. You might not be able to call an 800 number with your issue, but you can just as easily access its network of active forums and resources created by experienced developers. And of course if you have a support agreement with your developer, that’s taken care of as well.

5. Future so bright you gotta wear shades. One of the risks of using a proprietary CMS is that if the company that owns it falls off the radar or goes under, you and your website are out of luck. Popular open source platforms like WordPress aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and that security should definitely be taken into consideration when you choose a CMS.

That’s not to say open source CMS don’t have their problems. Some drawbacks for open source platforms include:


1. Security. The more familiar people are with the source code of a system, the higher the chance of security risks. On the flip side, because there are more developers looking at the source code, bugs and security breaches are noticed and fixed faster. Developers that use open source platforms have to spend more time assessing those risks and updating third party plugins to make sure the site runs securely. However, if you use a quality open source CMS with a developer that provides good support, security is not an issue. The White House site uses Drupal, for example.

2. The code is only as good as the developer. If you use an unscrupulous developer for your open source site they may not take the time and energy to make sure plugins are well documented and supported, which can cause problems down the road. Proprietary systems have the advantage of complete control over their code, but that also means they’re slower to create new modules, and they pass the bulk of the cost of developing them directly to you.

3. Big data. For sites that require highly specialized data handling (large intranets, databases) , a custom designed CMS is probably a better option.

 So which type of CMS is right for you? 

Well, it depends. Both kinds of CMS have their strengths and weaknesses, and it the hands of the right developer or company can be equally powerful. The most important things to keep in mind when choosing which route to take are:

1. Your content needs. Do you need to update your website daily? Monthly? How savvy are your employees with the CMS? Both open and closed source developers will provide training on their CMS, it really just depends which interface you’re more comfortable with.

2. Your budget.  Open source CMS is generally less expensive and requires no costly licensing fees, which is easier on your budget. Proprietary systems charge more on a long term basis.

3. Whether you need the freedom to take your website to other providers down the road. If you have a great relationship with your proprietary CMS provider you’re golden, but if that relationship goes sour, you’re locked in for better or worse.

4. How much custom functionality you require. If your site will require a lot of custom functionality (real estate, ecommerce, calendars, etc) , a proprietary CMS will probably be out of your budget unless they happen to already specialize in your industry.  You can either make use of  the wealth of options available on WordPress or have your proprietary CMS developer create those tools for you specifically at cost.

In the end, it comes down to balancing cost, convenience, and flexibility. Using WordPress will cost less upfront but require updates, while a proprietary CMS will cost considerably more but your site won’t require as much maintenance from you in the future. Using a proprietary CMS means you’re more tied down to your provider and what kind of functionality they can provide, and if you use an open source CMS your site has more flexibility to add functionality quickly and change providers easily.


Further reading:

Closed or Open Source CMS: Which CMS Is Right For Your Business? on Mashable
Open Source vs Proprietary CMS on Bloomtools
CMS Security: Closed vs Open Sourced on Coast Digital
Hardening WordPress: Keeping Your Site Secure