Open Source vs Proprietary CMS

Every website should be easy to use and update, should be built with SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) in mind, and should be able to grow as your business and online strategy grow. There are numerous technology platforms that may fit the bill, so which one should you choose?

Well that will depend on what your online needs are. This article should help you understand the choices and is designed for small and medium business. Those with budgets in the tens of thousands typically have a few additional choices, so this is aimed typically at those in the $2000 to $10,000 price range.

Broadly, the platforms can be categorised into two groups: Open Source and Proprietary.

Open Source Systems:

  • Are built and maintained by groups of interested people all over the world. While there is typically one controlling body, they belong to no one.
  • Make the source code available to all. Anyone with the skills and time can extend and modify the code and create new functionality as required.
  • Can be hosted anywhere. You can host an open source web site with just about any ISP or hosting company on their servers or your own.
  • Are typically free – or at least the software itself is. Customisation, design, and hosting are not.

Proprietary Systems:

  • Are 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.
  • Are 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.

There are pros and cons for each, and which is best for you will depend on your requirements.

Open Source

There are a number of popular open source platforms, including Wordpress, Joomla, Drupal, DotNetNuke, Mambo and many many more. Which one is best will typically depend on who you ask; every web developer has a favourite and all will tell you theirs is the most complete, easiest to use and most cost effective!

The only thing for sure at the moment is that Wordpress is by far the most popular and is rapidly becoming the default standard. If starting fresh with an open source solution you would need to have a very good reason not to choose Wordpress.

  • 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 a 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 in to a proprietary host).
  • You have a unique idea and need to build custom functionality into your website.
  • Your online presence is your business and you will be investing all of your time enhancing, tweaking and improving your website.
  • 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. The great thing about open source is there are hundreds of companies making add-ons, the bad thing is at some point you will need to evaluate and choose.
  • You (or your technology partner) 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 solutions is not free, but basic template sites are very cheap. They also look cheap. Expect to pay well for a good, unique design.
  • Support for, 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. Unless you have a support agreement with your developer, 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 your developer to install 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 (applies equally to Proprietary).
  • The majority of web developers using open source solutions are not actually software developers. While they may be experts at customising 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 community for that.
  • In theory you can move your website to another developer if unhappy. In reality this can be difficult due to design ownership, customisations and modules, and because each developer has their own preference for and knowledge of the various systems and add-ons. 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 community have moved on and development has stalled (hence the recommendation above to choose Wordpress which is unlikely to lose favour any time soon).

Proprietary Systems

Like open source, proprietary systems come in many, many flavours. A decade ago just about every software developer that did webdesign created their own CMS (Content Management System). Most of these have disappeared over the years as the open source solutions have improved.

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 tip that applies equally to open source solutions).

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 do not require custom development other than a great design.
  • 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 and finding that 3 of the 16 add-ons you use also require an upgrade to continue to function.
  • 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 (applies equally to open source solutions). Many companies will not provide this by default.
  • You may have little option for software enhancements or customisations 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 developing (even if you don’t need all of it now a comprehensive product suite is a good sign for the future.).
  • Many of the proprietary platforms have simply not kept up with changes like social networking and Google’s many updates to search algorithms. Many of them are simply woefully inadequate and/or difficult to use – solutions aimed at vertical markets (like real estate or plant and machinery) are often in this bucket as they made a grab for market share early on and then simply stopped developing. Again, make sure your technology partner continues to invest.

Hopefully that helps. They key with open source solutions is to pick both the right technology, and the right partner to assist you with it. At the moment the technology favourite is Wordpress, and there is no shortage of companies working with it (some very good, and many that struggle). For those on a very tight budget or who need highly customised software we recommend Wordpress.

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. Bloomtools is a leader in this market internationally, because they tick all the boxes including product set, R&D and company stability. It is the best solution for the majority of small and medium businesses who are serious about getting results from their online presence and want cost effective, set-and-forget technology. 


A big thanks to Mark Illot from Bloomtools Sydney Central who developed this article for us.