Assessing Open Source Web Content Management

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Reservations Remain

Many enterprise customers still express concerns about support for open source packages. In my opinion, this is mostly a red herring, since (as we’ll see) you can frequently find excellent formal and informal support for major open source tools.

On the other hand, some serious shortcomings have emerged across the open source WCM landscape that have held back nearly all the tools to some extent. Most open source WCM products share a real aversion to Microsoft Windows and Office integration, which severely limits their reach in an enterprise setting. Most open source communities are led by developers who failed to foresee the rise of the marketing manager as the lead website decision maker—and as someone who wants very marketing-oriented functionality and usability, even for intranets. Finally, many open source WCM efforts have evolved into complex development platforms at a time when the marketplace seems to want more productized solutions.

So you can explore a range of credible and impressive open source alternatives, but you still have to work to sort them out and to figure out which will fit best for you.

Evaluating Open Source WCM Solutions

Evaluating open source software is easier than evaluating commercial software in some ways and harder in others. First, the traditional research analyst firms pay less attention to open source software than to commercial software. That’s a pity. I believe this has the effect of underestimating the market share of open source packages.

Evaluating open source software can also get harder because, frequently, there is no software sales organization to help you understand the platform and its potential. This hit home for a client of mine who wanted to receive a formal proposal and engage in a dialogue with an open source vendor. He was told instead to "download the package and call us with questions." This kind of approach works for developers who want to experiment and be left alone, but larger customers will frequently find it too hands-off.

On the plus side, open source software and the communities behind it are more transparent than what you’ll typically find with commercial software. The information is out there, and if you know where to look, you can really understand the quality of the software and the helpfulness and strength of the group that supports it. You can easily test the tools (always a good idea), though you and your authors will get to know the tools much better if you consult with someone knowledgeable about the particular package.

What to Look For

You should look for open source projects with velocity and staying power. Velocity means that there is an active community around a well-organized team of code committers who are consistently making improvements and applying security patches. This is particularly important because open source WCM platforms tend to be targeted more by malicious hackers, though the larger communities excel at quickly identifying and fixing vulnerabilities.

A lively and active worldwide open source project can expose you to some of the fastest technical support found anywhere. You’ll want to read the community mailing lists to get an idea of the quality of the responses and the people who are posting them. Also, read the mail lists to get an idea of what other companies are doing with the software. A community of organizations with similar scenarios to yours will be more likely to extend the application in ways that are useful to you.

Staying power really revolves around the diversity of project leadership and the maturity of project governance. If the original evangelists move on (which happens a lot), will a critical mass in the community keep a project going? Look for projects in which there are many people posting helpful answers and updates, not just a few. A recent trend in open source WCM projects is to put the source code in the hands of a community-supported foundation, which makes the package seem less like a creature of its founders and helps assure the installed base that the code will remain under community control going forward.

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