Content management systems; open source vs proprietary

Content management systems; open source vs proprietary

Your website should be easy to use, not just for the end user, but the administrator as well. This means it should be simple to update, be built with SEO in mind, and have the ability to grow and adapt in line with your business and its strategy. 

Much of this comes down to the CMS within which it is built. But with so many different formats available and so many on the market to choose from, it can be difficult to know which one is right for your organisation. 

One of the biggest decisions you’ll face when choosing a CMS for your website is whether it should be built using Open Source or Proprietary software, and I’m afraid if you’re looking for a one-size-fits-all solution, you won’t find it here. 

While there is no clear “winner” for everyone, each model has its benefits (and naturally some drawbacks, too). So, if you want to learn a bit more about each and get a feel for which one might suit you best, keep on reading…

Open Source

“Open source” refers to a type of development software whose source code (the medium in which programmers create and modify software) is freely available for anyone to download, adapt and use. Because of this, any programmer fluent in the language it is written can add new capabilities not originally envisaged by its creators. 

Many well-known content management systems like WordPress, Joomla and Drupal quickly grew in popularity thanks to their free, open source code. And while open-source software is rapidly becoming the CMS development model of choice for many businesses, like all things in this world it has its pros and cons. So let’s take a look at some of them in more detail: 

The Pros:

Large community of developers
Open source CMS solutions are typically built and worked on by communities of developers around the world, who will share updates and modifications freely on the internet. By investing in an open source CMS, you will therefore have access to the many extensions and plugins that have been previously built and shared. Adding these to your website will allow for the kind of free (or low cost) customisation that a closed or “proprietary” system may struggle to offer.

Free support
As mentioned above, open source software solutions are continually being developed and improved upon by communities of skilled and dedicated developers. Whether an open source package is being used commercially or not, the same global community of supporters is available for asking questions and advice. Open Source programmes also usually come with reams of detailed documentation, and further support can be found in the dedicated forums and newsgroups. 

Fewer bugs and faster fixes
Since open source solutions have millions of eyes examining the source code each day, any bugs in the software are more likely to be exposed. What’s more, is anyone who is able to fix a bug is also usually nice enough to share the solution on the dedicated forums. And if you’re fluent enough in the code that the software uses, you could even have a go at applying your own patches. 

Open source vs proprietary CMS

Easy future adaptation
Because you have unlimited access to the source code, your open software solution can be modified and customised at any given time; all you need is a developer who knows the language.

No vendor lock-in
If you end up wanting to move away from an open source platform, unlike with many proprietary systems that keep their source code securely under wraps, exporting and transferring your data should be a piece of cake. There is also less risk of you being left with an orphan piece of software, which would be the case if a proprietary vendor were to fold or discontinue their product.  


Not all platforms are the same
Obviously not all proprietary platforms are the same either, but don’t assume that all widely-recognised open source CMS’ will offer the same levels of functionality and capability. Despite their popularity, some can be difficult to use, and aren’t as regularly updated or as powerful as some others. Be sure to test out how well each one is suited to your website and its individual needs before making a commitment. If you need a hand knowing where to start, have a quick read of this post.

May not be able to handle all requirements
If your business is highly niche and this is to be reflected in the functionality of your website, don’t expect an out-of-the-box CMS to be able to handle all of your custom requirements. Your CMS may need to be highly customised, and this doesn’t always end up being cheaper than having the whole system built from the ground up in the first place. 

Custom builds may cost more
As mentioned above, lots of custom development work will incur lots of extra charges. Attempting to mould a pre-packed CMS into the solution that you actually require can be costly, and doesn’t always produce the desired results. Remember, source code is not designed for the average end user to easily use and modify, so unless you are an expert you will need to employ one. 


Proprietary software on the other hand is software that is owned and licensed for use by the company that developed it. The only way to get hold of it is to purchase the physical product from the developer or reseller, or to lease it for a monthly fee.  

Unlike with open source solutions, the source code of proprietary software is usually kept tightly under wraps. This means it is not easily customisable, and is usually more difficult to move away from.  

The Pros

Lower initial cost 
If you do your research and choose a system that has been designed well and suits the needs of your business, the upfront costs are likely to be less, as little customisation will be required. Luckily for you there are hundreds of proprietary CMS’ out there to choose from. Just be sure to pick one with strengths that are aligned to the needs of your organisation. 

While open source CMS’ tend to be fairly secure, there is no doubt that their popularity causes them to be a more attractive target for hackers. Think about it this way; WordPress now powers around 26% of all of the websites in the world, so if you can find a vulnerability within one of them, it’s likely to be present across more than just a handful of sites.

What’s more is that lots of people will use source code written and shared by others to customise their websites, and with this comes the risk of accidentally embedding malicious content.

While no development model is 100% bulletproof, most proprietary systems have a much smaller user base which makes them less attractive to hackers, and since the source code is kept behind lock and key, it’s generally (but not always) more difficult to tap into.

The Cons

Contracts and leasing
As mentioned above, most proprietary systems are leased out to consumers as opposed to sold outright. This unfortunately means that you’re not buying into anything you will ever actually own, so as long as you keep using the software, you will keep paying for it.  

Increased possibility of vendor lock-in
Proprietary CMS solutions are supported only by their producers and retailers, and since the source code is usually kept a closely guarded secret, exporting data can be tricky, if not near impossible. If you’re unhappy with the service, flexibility or functionality, unfortunately you’ll have nowhere else to go. 


So as you can see, there is no winning argument in the battle between open source and proprietary CMS solutions, and whether you choose to invest in one or the other will be completely down to your business and its unique requirements. But to make things easier for you, here’s a quick summary of your options:


If customisation is what you need, a proprietary CMS may be on the cards. Be careful though, as migrating away from proprietary software is notoriously difficult, so make sure you’ve done your research before you jump in at the deep end! Some developers will offer you a free demo so that you can try the software before you buy, and we would strongly recommend that you do so. 

Open Source

If you’re looking to invest in a website that isn’t particularly niche or doesn’t require heaps of bespoke development, your best bet is probably to go open source. 

Having said that, lots of businesses are now opting for the “best of both worlds”; using open source development for the mainstay of the build, and plugging in bespoke development to handle more complex tasks where necessary. Doing so means you get all the benefits of open source (the regular updates and modifications, not to mention the added flexibility if you ever choose to change providers) and mitigates against some of the bigger risks that come with proprietary software, such as vendor lock-in.

We hope this post has given you some ammunition to help tackle the decision of open source vs proprietary, but if you have any further questions, or nuggets of advice that might be of use to your fellow readers, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below!  



Content Management System, CMS, Open Source, Proprietary, Web Design, Websites




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