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Content Management Systems (CMS): Proprietary vs. Open Source

Wether in casual conversation or in the midst of boardroom project pitches, we are often asked why we opt to use an open source CMS (Content Managment System) over a CMS custom built for the project. We (DangerDynamite) choose to lean in favor of the open source model for our projects, even though it means going against the norm in the web development industry. For most web developers, using a custom CMS means they can make more money on any given project, and effectively lock that client into a lucrative long term contract. A custom built CMS is unique to the developer(s) who built it, effectively making it off limits to most other potential developers. For this reason we are something of an anomaly in the web development industry for choosing not to buy into what appears to be a great way to bolster our bottom line. Why you ask? What could possibly sway us to do such a thing? Well, there are many reasons, and hopefully we can provide a little insight into our decision.

Is there a cost difference between an open source and a custom CMS?

The most fundamental factor in our decision is cost. When we talk about cost we are not simply speaking about the upfront expense of building a CMS from scratch, we are also talking about the many other costs incurred over the lifetime of the website. Things like development time, scalability, security and maintenance of the CMS all influence the long term cost of a web project. In the most basic cost terms, an open source CMS is free, while a custom built CMS can easily eclipse the cost of the rest of the project. That said, most "custom" CMS systems built by developers are typically based on an open source CMS, and are simply hacked apart and rebuilt as a proprietary system. An open source CMS on the other hand is ready to go out of the box, with setup time and configuration as the time cost. No coding and no wasted time expense.

Think of this in terms of buying a car from a vehicle manufacturer. You can buy a car pre-built for a relatively affordable cost, configure it how you want it, pick a color and so on. You also get perks like a warranty, easy to find accessories and parts and a fairly broad selection of mechanics willing to service your vehicle. Now, if you were to find a way to have a car built from scratch for you things are a little different. The initial cost of actually building a car from the ground up is astronomical (assuming its a well built vehicle) to start with, even though you can customize every aspect of it. Once that car is built only the mechanic who built it can likely maintain it for you, parts are non existent, there are no accessories and forget about a rock solid warranty. The difference between a custom CMS and an open source CMS is essentially no different.

What other costs are involved in choosing a CMS?

Like development cost there are many other elements to consider. For example, there is a significant amount of time involved in custom building a CMS and can push back launch dates. Likewise, all functional components of your website need to be built from scratch. Any custom components will add yet more time to the development of your website and add yet more cost to an already expensive project. With open source however, there are thousands upon thousands of developers out there building world class components for your chosen CMS. Sure, there are some instances where a functional component will need to be custom built even in an open source CMS, but they are few and far between. Component licensing fees and the cost of making minor modifications is a fraction of the cost of building a component from scratch. Similarly, most commercially available components for an open source CMS are frequently updated with bug fixes and added features, again adding to their value. With a custom CMS you typically get exactly what you pay for at the time you paid for it, with no updates and no added features.

Is security a concern with an open source CMS?

Similarly, the security of your CMS varies greatly from custom to open source. Don't get me wrong, there is no such thing as an un-hackable CMS regardless of who built it. There will always be someone out there who has the skill needed to cause trouble, but it certainly helps to ensure you are doing as much as you can to start with. With a custom CMS your are 100% dependent on your chosen developer for security, and their skill level defines how secure your website is at launch. With an open source CMS you have the skill of the ENTIRE development community behind your website right out of the gate. Aside from this, there are countless add-on components to provide more advanced security options for your open source CMS and frequent software updates ensuring your CMS has the most current security features available. With a custom CMS you are reliant solely on your chosen developer to make updates to your website and its software, and usually only in reaction to clear security failures. You are responsible to recruit your developer to make those security updates and pay them handsomely to do so.

What about maintaining a CMS based website?

Lastly, there is maintenance and long term project development to consider. As we mentioned earlier, with a custom CMS you are locked in with your chosen developer. Any site updates you need to make have to be done by your developer, you cannot go out and get price quotes from competitors or hire your own in-house maintenance staff. If you wish to part ways with your custom CMS developer, you will need to start over from scratch, which can add yet more cost to your already massive investment. With open source your options are much better. Not only are there many fantastic editing tools which can be added to your open source CMS based website, allowing you to maintain things on your own with relative ease, but there are also developers all over the world who would be happy to help you out. Also, the odds are in your favor that what you want to do has already been done for your CMS, and you can save on development costs. Likewise the competitive nature of the open source development community helps keep your developer honest and producing the best product possible.

So, where does this leave us?

Open source is more cost effective for everyone.
Open source is faster to build and launch.
Open source is more scalable.
Open source is more secure.
Open source is less expensive to maintain.
Sounds to me like open source has a pretty clear set of advantages in the CMS game, but ultimately its up to you to decide! Feel free to contact our team if you have any questions regarding CMS's and how they work.