When Free Isn't: Open Source CMS v. Closed Commercial Hosted CMS
Nicci Francis | Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Until they begin the process of building a website, most people do not give any thought to the content management system (CMS) that powers the website. Web developers, however, are often embroiled in a hotly contested debate over the best CMS to effectively manage a website. For many businesses, the battle between open source CMS and closed or commercial CMS is initially a battle between "free" and paid services. Upon further investigation, it becomes apparent that the benefits and drawbacks of each type of system go far beyond initial cost.

If I were one to rely on cliches, here is where I would throw out adages like "nothing in life is free," "there's no such thing as a free lunch," or "you get what you pay for." However, I'm too clever to use cliches, and you're too savvy to buy them. Instead, we'll explain why Webdexterous relies on Adobe Business Catalyst, a closed commercial hosted CMS, for our clients' websites, rather than offering a website built on a "free" open source CMS.

Open Source CMS:  The Good

Open source content management systems are those in which the source code is free to distribute. Popular open source content management systems include heavy-hitters such as WordPress, Joomla, Drupal as well as DotNetNuke, PHP-Nuke, and virtually countless others. Many web developers like open source CMS for the simple reason that it keeps their investment low. Their clients are also initially happy with this lower cost.  After all, their CMS is free, which may result in lower start-up costs in building a website. Developers also like the flexibility, easy installation, and custom plug-ins which add functionality to the site. So what's not to love?

The Bad

When comparing a free open source CMS to the initial expense of a closed commercial hosted CMS, some web developers and their clients wonder why anyone would pay for a content management system when so many free options are available. However, using an open source CMS is not without its drawbacks. Limited documentation, incompatible or unsupported plug-ins, security breaches, and the necessity of frequently upgrading the system can drive up the cost of using a "free" CMS and can cause continued frustration for website owners.

Because the source code is freely and publicly available, websites using an open source CMS are very susceptible to hacks.  If security is important for your business, an open source CMS is likely not a viable option. To keep your site running, your developer must continually upgrade your site to reduce security vulnerabilities and to ensure your plug-ins play nicely with each other and with your themes. While you may have selected a web developer using a free, open source CMS based on initial cost, you will soon see the initial savings--and more--disappear as you pay your web designer to make the upgrades necessary for a smoothly running site. While he or she is making those changes, your site may suffer prolonged downtime, which in turn leads to frustration for your customers and lost sales for your business.

The Ugly

We used to like open source CMS for reasons including low cost and flexibility. However, after working  with these systems a while, it became apparent that an initially free product can quickly waste a client's time and money. While open source CMS may be useful for many purposes, the number of web developers creating their own closed content management systems illustrates that open source is not the best solution for many businesses.  

Relying on a closed commercial hosted CMS such as Adobe Business Catalyst may create initially higher set-up costs and hosting fees, but it can save time and money in the long run. Adobe Business Catalyst is more than a CMS product--it is a hosted service that includes automatic upgrades, higher security, better support and documentation, and additional services such as email marketing service, customer relationship management (CRM), and more.

The best illustration of the value of a closed commercial hosted CMS over an open source CMS comes to us via the following letter sent to one of our colleagues by his website design company, which hosted the site on an open source content management system:

"Your website is one of the web sites we host on a technology platform called (Un-named Open Source CMS).  Over the past few  months (Web Design Company) has had a number of security attacks on its (Un-named Open Source CMS) hosted customers, but only for those customers whose web sites are hosted on older versions of (Un-named Open Source CMS).  Older versions of (Un-named Open Source CMS) have security holes that can be exploited.  Newer versions of (Un-named Open Source CMS)  have been released to address these issues.  Currently, your site is one of our sites currently using the older (Un-named Open Source CMS)  technology and therefore is vulnerable.

In order to ensure all of our customers are protected from these types of attacks, it is necessary to migrate all of our legacy (Un-named Open Source CMS)  customers to the latest (Un-named Open Source CMS). The upgrade will require (Web Design Company) personnel to work on your specific needs regarding the services you have running on the site.  This will include upgrading the core version of (Un-named Open Source CMS)  as well as updating any custom or third party modules that are in use.  Based on your particular needs, the cost for your upgrade will be $2,000.00.  This covers all costs associated with developer time and migration to a more secure hosting platform.  It is imperative for all customers to be upgraded by (Date 2 Months Later).   Should you elect not to have your site upgraded, then (Web Design Company) will no longer be able to meet your hosting needs."  

In other words, this "free" system would cost our friend $2,000 simply to keep the existing website up and running.

Our Take:  

Stories like our friend's are the reason Webdexterous uses the Adobe Business Catalyst content management system. The system's features make it worth our investment to bring you the most stable and secure platform for your website:

  • Secure system
  • Constantly updated and maintained software and hosting environment
  • No incompatibility between features
  • Flexibility to add custom features through web apps modules and liquid markup
  • Rarely need to integrate with third-party solutions
  • API

Although Business Catalyst may not work for every client, for most websites, its features are more than adequate. Of all of the projects in which we have been involved, only a couple were beyond the scope of Adobe Business Catalyst; these were beyond the scope of open source CMS such as Joomla, WordPress, and Drupal as well.

We aren't out to sell anyone on Adobe Business Catalyst. We realize that most of our customers don't care what system their website uses--only that it runs efficiently and cost-effectively. Using a "free" system may not be the best value when the cost of upgrades and custom programming are taken into consideration. Our goal is to understand our clients' needs and provide the best possible solution for the greatest value. Website development is not about how little the customer can get in for, but about how this is going to affect their bottom line or to meet their long term goals--with the fewest possible headaches or surprise costs.

We know that many website design businesses and their clients have had success using open source content management systems; others have created their own closed content management systems for supporting client websites. We'd love to hear from you about your successes and failures with open source, closed, and commercial content management systems.  Where do you weigh in on this debate?