When thinking content management, go open source

When it comes to content management organisations have the wrong priorities. They spend millions on a content management system when they should be focusing their investment on the content itself. Open source helps do that.

This post has been sponsored by Acquia. Acquia provides the leading cloud platform for building, delivering, and optimizing digital experiences on Drupal.

I am working with a client who has budgeted £2 million for the procurement of a content management system (CMS). £2 million! This boggles my mind.

But that is what you pay for an enterprise level content management system these days. A system that is robust, scalable and has the level of support a ‘grown up’ organisation needs. At least that is what the CMS vendors will tell you.

Now I am not a developer. I am no expert in technical architecture, security or scalability. Yet I have talked with many providers of commercial content management systems. In all those conversations I have never heard anything that makes me think what they offer is preferable to open source.

The benefits of open source

I am a huge fan of open source. In fact I struggle to think of a scenario where I would recommend a commercial CMS over an open source one. It just makes more sense to me.

The most obvious benefit is value for money. Why pay huge amounts for a content management system when there are open source systems available? When the content management system itself is free you can focus investment on other more important areas. Areas such as performance, security and robustness. Areas such as the content itself or customising the CMS to your specific needs.

Bizarrely this seems to make many organisations nervous. How can it be any good if the system is freely available? But that kind of thinking doesn’t work in the world of open source. When it comes to open source platforms like Drupal, investment in new features is down to demand, not how much it costs to develop.

The fact that Drupal is free gives it a huge advantage.
Choosing an open source content management system like Drupal offers many advantages.

Also an open source project like Drupal has thousands of volunteers working on it. These volunteers pour way more hours into it then any commercial vendor could justify. This means more features. But it also means less bugs. The more eyes looking at the code, the more bugs they will spot and fix.

The fact that an open source CMS is free to download means more developers use it. This will make recruitment for your digital team easier. No need to compete for that handful of developers with experience in your commercial platform.

The numbers of people using an platform like Drupal also means excellent community support. If you are facing a problem in Drupal, a quick Google will turn up somebody who has faced the problem before and solved it.

This community doesn’t just help overcome problems, they are also adding to the power of the application. No more waiting and hoping your commercial CMS provider decides to roll out that piece of functionality you need. The chances are somebody has already built what you need and shared it online. If they haven’t you can just get a developer to build a plugin for you.

With so many reasons to use open source it is amazing that some organisations still avoid it. Yet they do.

Debunking the supposed drawbacks

Some of the reasons organisations avoid open source are political. Buying a commercial platform is the “safe choice”. It is how IT departments have always done things. Buy in an off-the-shelf system. Job done! Nobody gets fired for playing safe. For doing things the way they have always been done.

But that is not always the reason. Some organisations have concerns about open source systems like Drupal. Concerns that are largely unjustified.

Open source solutions are not as scalable or robust

One common criticism of open source is that it isn’t as robust or scalable as commercial systems. But these days that argument is harder and harder to make. After all millions of websites rely on Drupal, many of which experience huge levels of traffic. Sites like the Whitehouse, Oxfam and CERN. But there are many others too. Sites of every size and in every sector.

High profile sites like the Whitehouse are confident in the robustness and security of open source.
High profile sites like the Whitehouse are confident in the robustness and security of open source.

There are also experts like Acquia who specialise in providing Drupal hosting. Hosting that scales and remains reliable under the heaviest of loads. Experts that also ensure the security of these sites.

Open source is less secure

Many claim that if your source code is available for the world to see it makes it easy to hack. At face value this makes sense. But in reality this isn’t true.

By making the code open to all, security holes are quickly spotted by the community and plugged. Yes a few bad apples maybe looking to breach that security. But many more want to make the code as secure as possible. For example you can bet that the US Government is keen to ensure the Whitehouse website is not vulnerable to hackers!

Of course, if you do have concerns you can once again turn to a company like Acquia to provide that extra level of security. They can also help with another common criticism around support.

Companies like Acquia can provide the reliability, scalability and security you need from an open source platform.
Companies like Acquia can provide the reliability, scalability and security you need from an open source platform.

You don’t get enterprise support

One of the most common objections about open source is that you don’t have support if things go wrong. Companies are willing to pay a lot of money to know they have somebody to help them if there is a problem.

That doesn’t mean you have to buy a commercial system. You can hire a company to provide this support if you need it. But with such a strong community even this is not always necessary. There are no shortage of places you can turn if you need help solving a problem.

What if people stop supporting the system

Of course this is all well and good as long as the community remains robust. But what happens if your choice of open source CMS falls out of favour? What if developers stop developing it and the community fades away?

It is possible this might happen. But choices like Drupal have been around for years. What is more with so many prominent sites reliant on it this is unlikely to happen.

In fact there is more chance that your CMS vendor will stop supporting your commercial platform. Remember my client who is spending £2 million on their CMS? They are having to change their system because the company who ran the old one is no longer supporting it.

There are better ways to spend your money

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying there is anything wrong with commercial content management systems. I am just saying there are better places you could spend that money.

You could spend it on customising an open source system to better suit your organisations specific needs. Or you could spend it on building a content team who produce high quality content.

My point is that we should think long and hard before spending money that could be better spent elsewhere. That we should make our default position open source and have a good reason if we want to consider a commercial solution instead.

  • Baphomet87

    Sure, you may not pay any license fees for an Open Source CMS product, but development, support, hosting and so on is no cheaper than with a commercial product. Don’t forget about the cost of retraining or upskilling staff too.

    Something like Drupal is more of a framework than a CMS. To get all of the good, usable modules together, write some custom code and develop a theme to meet a project’s requirements is no small (or cheap) task – unless you have a team of good Drupal people in place already

    I’ve personally seen projects to implement Open Source CMS’s that have cost millions upon millions of dollars, mostly because the Open Source product was built with tools the customer was unfamiliar. I’ve seen commercial CMS products implemented cheaply and quickly.

    What really matters is what the customer wants to do, what their existing technology stack looks like, what’s the skill level of the their available staff. I’m not trying to bag Drupal btw – it’s a great product and Open Source success story, but it’s not always perfect.

    • You are of course completely right. No system is perfect and open source does not mean free. But equally all of the costs and problems you have identified apply equally to commercial content management systems. And that is ON TOP of the cost of the CMS.

  • Very much in agreement here Paul. I’ve seen examples of businesses who are stuck with a sub par experience because their web agency insists or strongly recommends their in-house system and the only way out is to build a new site. Open source coupled with wide adoption and an active community of developers and businesses around that system such as WordPress etc can create massive economies of scale such that a business can purchase or install a plugin/addon/theme at no or minimal cost that has had thousands of hours of development. The agencies with in house closed systems are by the nature of their business model required to distribute the cost of their system development, management and improvement across their customer base, which could be quite large in the case of say wix or squarespace but for a typical web deveiopment provider could be just hundreds or maybe low thousands of clients. Open Source with a commercial ecosystem and a degree of developer altruism seems to be a pretty reliable combination for ever improving cms.

  • Robert Faulkner

    My clients always want an open source solution as they are scared of a bespoke or proprietary solution to which they might get tied to and not able to pass on to another development agency if they wanted to move on. So open source is a good solution which is a shame as we have spend years developing our own in house CMS which we think is better for many requirements but I guess you have to do what the customer wants :)

  • Tristan Chambers

    Hey Paul, I love your blog. As a Drupal developer I caution anyone from saying that open source solutions like Drupal are ‘free.’ There is no licensing fee, but other costs are associated with open source based projects that you wouldn’t have for a proprietary solution. Drupal is free, like a free kitten. And this kitten hasn’t been spayed or neutered, or had its shots, and must be litter trained. Drupal is an anarchist community driven project. Variation and idiosyncrasies prevail, sometimes leading to egregious usability problems, and technology strategies that in hind sight seem far from strategic. Part of my job is to turn the mess known as Drupal into a workable platform for a project. This is an inextricable cost of using Drupal. Despite this, the project may be cheaper than a proprietary CMS solution. $2M is insane!