Open Source CMS vs. Closed Source CMS: The Business Implications of using these Content Management Systems

Open Source CMS vs. Closed Source CMS: The Business Implications of using these Content Management Systems

The technical wizardry behind computer programming and website management is perplexing and beyond most of us ordinary folk, so here’s an easier way for people to think of Open Source Systems and Closed Source Systems for Content Management.

You walk into a car dealership and you are presented with two identical cars.  But wait, there is a catch!

One of the cars’ bonnet is completely sealed shut- you have no idea what’s going on underneath and have no way of getting to the working parts of the vehicle.  However, the other vehicle lets you pop the hood without impediment and tinker with the engine to your hearts content- you can optimise its performance, add parts and take parts out all by yourself or with the help of a specialist.

This is the basic difference between Open Source and Closed Source Systems.  With Open Source you can “pop the hood” and find any skilled technician to replace parts and fix, or upgrade the car at any point in time.  With closed source, getting “under the hood” is impossible.  You don’t have any real idea of what’s going on beneath the exterior and you have to rely on your original supplier for service, maintenance and upgrades.

So how does this affect your business?

From day one your Closed Source System will have to do everything you might ever need it to do- adding a function at a later stage, for example a new promotion or product, will prove an almost impossible task.  If you end up needing to alter your site, you may find yourself shoehorning in unsuitable third party solutions, or in drastic circumstances being forced to completely reconstruct your site from scratch.  If your site isn’t perfect from the start, you could find yourself with more headaches than you expected from a bespoke Closed Source System.

Say your company does decide to launch a new promotional campaign. You’ll soon find yourself needing to update your site to promote your latest offers as soon as possible but to achieve this you have to go through the rigmarole of contacting your supplier and asking them to update the site.  Extensibility with Closed Source Systems is incredibly limited.  If you find yourself needing to add say a checkout option to an ecommerce site, your suppliers may be completely uninterested in upgrading their product, even if you’re literally throwing cash at them!

Open Source Systems are the complete reverse, but still have their positives and negatives.  They are broadly accessible to developers and you can literally go anywhere to get your changes done, not just the sole company holding the keys to your Closed Source castle.  Just take a look at the vast developer community surrounding WordPress, all offering advice, support and thousands of guides that can help you to turn your website into anything you like at a moments notice.  Need to add an e commerce section? No problem, search the web for some ideas to get you started and before long the Open Source community will be knocking on your door with advice.

Open Source really is Open! What about my business’ security?

With Closed Source, ignorance is viewed as both the provider and destroyer of security.  People will often believe that Closed Source Systems are more secure just because it is less accessible- this is known as security through obscurity.  In all reality it is this obscurity and ignorance that hides the greatest danger.  How are you ever meant to know whether there are gaping security holes in your site that you will never be able to see?  There could be weaknesses that cause your system to crash when certain requests are made, shutting your entire website down for god knows how long.  There will also be the danger of backdoors into your system that the developers have left either by accident or on purpose. These backdoors won’t have the security of Fort Knox so don’t be surprised if troublemakers come knocking.

The myth that Open Source literally translates as ‘open to hackers’ is generally being debunked and the overwhelming view is that Open Source now offers greater security than its Closed Source compadre. With an Open Source System you have access to the code and can have an independent expert review your coding to make sure your website is secure.  People will often believe that this is an opportunity for malicious developers to explore for potential weaknesses, when in reality the vast and supportive Open Source community will generally find your issues and report them to you before any malicious miscreants can cause havok.  Open Source code is accessible to the extent that you can ensure all requests and actions are handled in a safe manner.  SEO wizard Tim Biden recently produced this article on protecting your Open Source WordPress CMS from hacker attempts.

I need my website to be reliable; I’m too busy with my business to deal with technical problems!

Closed Source Systems can be limited by actual license files that will need to be periodically updated to keep the system functional.  If the company running your software goes bust, you will no longer regularly receive license files, essentially preventing your website from functioning.

Time is a force that affects everything, but especially Closed Source Systems.  As technologies and servers change, something that worked perfectly fine before will start acting up and causing issues.  Having to rely solely on your original manufacturer will limit you to fitting around their schedule when it comes to dealing with your queries.  They will only look to upgrade or update your service when the have time or deem it necessary.  That said, you are paying for a service, so the company is at risk of legal action if they sign a contract to provide support and fail to do so.  They should also provide concise, well written documentation to help you along the way, rather than leaving you stranded without a clue.  It is fair to assume that as a paying customer, you will be entitled to a regular and professional service whenever you require it, without having to rely on the volunteer support communities of Open Source Systems.

With Open Source, the supporting communities are perfectly poised to help your site run in line with the latest technologies and updates.  The community base can be so vast and constantly active that technological upgrades are absorbed and adapted to within a tiny period of time.  Of course the problem with Open Source is that it does require maintenance. The trend for busy entrepreneurs is to acquire a ready made system that does the functions they require and they don’t have to worry about it.  With Open Source, this simply isn’t possible.  It requires regular maintenance and knowledge of coding unless you are looking to hire an in-house specialist or an agency. You can read up about the reliability of Open Source in general here.

I have limited funding to launch my business’ website, how much will Open Source or Closed Source systems cost?

Open Source Content Management Systems are by their very nature generally free.  There may the occasional licensing costs and obviously bringing in specialists will lighten your purse but the service should be relatively cheap overall, and with a vast array of forums to help you figure out your problems you may even be spared specialist expenses.

Closed Source systems on the other hand can prove to be costly.  What you must remember is that the Closed Source System will only be open to the developer, so they could charge significant amounts for the time they have to spend fixing bugs or issues. Take into account extenuating licensing fees and continuing consultancy for your website and your bill will soon start to look a little intimidating. Like everything in life, Open Source will cost a bit, but at the very least you have the option of using a free support network.  Closed Source can soon become a black hole for your cash due to unscrupulous developers overcharging because they know you are their only option.

So what should I choose?

The choice between Open Source or Closed source is constantly debated across the web.  The truth is that you should always suggest which system suits your business needs.  If you will need to regularly change the content of your website then Open Source will be preferable, its flexibility suiting your needs. Open Source also allows you to move between different web agencies as you please, cutting lose any ties to agencies that aren’t quite right for you.  Open Source content management systems such as Magento, Joomla! and WordPress are all favourites among start-ups and global corporations alike.

Closed Source will provide you with a site that will require minimal involvement in design and updates but will also restrict you from any involvement at all, so you better make sure you stay friendly with your developer!  If extensibility isn’t critical, but you want a ready made, functional website, with a paid for support service it may in fact prove to be the better option.  Closed Source CMSs such as Multistore, Shopify and CushyCMS all offer a functional, good looking site with a selection of add-ons.  Just be ready for the added costs and lack of flexibility you may encounter.

Author Bio

This article has been created by Sarah Pantry, the lead developer for Zeta, a digital agency specialising in content management systems.