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What’s the Best Website CMS: Proprietary or Open Source?

CMS-Header

There are many Content Management Systems (CMSs) available today, and very few websites are built without one. A CMS allows anyone the ability to easily make updates to website content without any programming training. If you’ve been tasked with managing your firm’s website and have used a few CMSs, you know there are a few similarities, many differences, and some are a lot more user-friendly than others.

When we begin discussing a website project with our clients they often ask which CMS we recommend. CMSs typically fall into one of two categories: Proprietary or Open Source. We have created websites using both. Here are a few of the main pros and cons for you to consider:

Proprietary CMSs

Proprietary CMSs are designed, built, and owned by the company that created them, and sold or licensed to companies for their use.

Pros:

  • Industry Specific
    Often, proprietary CMSs are built for a specific industry. Features and functionality specific to that industry are included. For example: architecture, construction, and real estate firms need portfolio sections to showcase their projects or properties. A proprietary CMS might have multiple portfolio templates  available “out of the box”.
  • Support & Hosting
    Proprietary CMSs usually come with a hosting and maintenance plan. It can be comforting to know that the company that built the CMS will be hosting and maintaining it, in case anything breaks at some point down the road.
  • Security
    One of the biggest selling points that proprietary CMSs claim is added security. Since proprietary code is not made public, the rationale is that hackers will have a harder time breaching the system.

Cons:

  • Availability
    After investing tens of thousands of dollars on a website, what happens if the company that built the CMS suddenly goes away? Could your website vanish along with their hosting server? It’s possible. More likely is a scenario where the company launches a new or “upgraded” version of the CMS, and informs you that your older version will no longer be supported. You are then forced to pay more for upgrades, or to rebuild your site elsewhere.
  • Cost
    Most proprietary CMSs usually have an initial set-up fee plus ongoing licensing fees. The initial contract is often for a year, and costs may go up steeply thereafter.
  • Added Features
    Your website will need to grow with your firm, and new functionality will undoubtedly need to be added down the road. Most licensors will not let you access their code, so any new features you want added will need to be programmed by them. Unfortunately, some take advantage of this situation and charge exorbitantly.

Open Source CMSs

Open Source CMSs generally have a controlling organization, but were often built and are now maintained by programmers all over the world. The code is “open” – freely available to anyone. Programmers continuously contribute to the code to make improvements and advance the functionality. The most widely-used Open Source CMSs today are WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal (in that order). As of November 2013, WordPress had 140 million downloads, Joomla had 30 Million, and Drupal had 15 million. According to the WordPress Wikipedia page, “WordPress was used by more than 23.3% of the top 10 million websites as of January 2015” making it the most widely adopted CMS in the world today, by far.

Pros:

  • Free
    Open Source CMSs are free to use. There are no licensing costs or ongoing fees. (Of course the website design, any customization, and hosting are not free.)
  • Hosting
    There are no rules about where an Open Source website may be hosted. Most major hosting providers already have the three top Open Source CMSs installed on their servers, so it is fairly simple to set up or move a site (although some technical assistance is usually required.)
  • Support
    There are agencies and programmers all over the world who can assist you with maintaining your Open Source website. You should not be locked into the agency that originally created your site.
  • Security
    Open Source advocates explain that, because programmers around the world regularly access the source code, bugs and security holes are noticed and repaired quickly. Conversely, similar bugs may go unnoticed for years in proprietary CMSs, making those websites more prone to hackers.

Cons:

  • Ease of Use
    Most people equate Open Source with “easy to use,” which is not always the case. Of the three top Open Source CMSs, WordPress is generally regarded as the most intuitive and simple to administer. However, it can still be confusing. A common misconception is that all WordPress sites are built the same. Not true. There are vast differences in the way WordPress sites can be programmed and configured, making administration very easy, or very confusing. Like any website project, be sure you work with a reputable agency and ask to see a demo of a similar site’s CMS administration.
  • Plug-Ins
    WordPress and other Open Source CMSs often rely on plug-ins (add-on software.) Plug-ins must be installed cautiously to make sure they are well-tested and supported. Old versions or unsupported plug-ins can cause problems on your site. Too many plug-ins can drastically slow down your site’s performance and load speed.
  • Templates
    Many templates (or “themes” in WordPress lingo) are available for Open Source CMSs. As a designer, I abhor templates. But I understand that for very small businesses starting out, they may be the only solution. If you decide to use a template, be extremely cautious. Many themes look great in demo-mode, but are poorly coded, ridiculously slow to load, and impossibly confusing to use (especially for non-technical administrators.)

If you talk to a dozen programmers and ask “Which CMS is the best?”, you’ll probably get a variety of answers. Most web programmers have their favorite CMS, simply because it’s the one they are most familiar with. If an agency owns a proprietary CMS they will, no doubt, tell you it’s the “best fit for you.” Each system has its advantages and disadvantages, so it really comes down to your specific needs and goals. As Adrian Bloem so eloquently stated, “Not only is there no ‘best CMS’ in general; there isn’t even a best CMS for you. All of these tools have drawbacks and shortcomings. Getting the right one means getting one that is the best fit to your scenarios and constraints.” Read his full post on the topic here: There is no “Best CMS for…” anything — and why it’s not useful to ask

Other relevant articles:

WordPress vs Joomla vs Drupal + CMS “comparison chart”
CMS Comparison: Drupal, Joomla, and WordPress
Best CMS Platforms 2015, A Comparison


Vanessa’s article first appeared in SMPS Boston’s Outlook, August 19, 2015.