Assessing Open Source Web Content Management

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The Rise of ‘Commercial Open Source’

Not all open source projects evolve into nonprofit entities, though. Some open source projects are owned and managed by commercial firms that provide professional support and drive the development of the platform. These companies occasionally distribute their software under both open source and commercial licenses to offer a more traditional software buying option for their customers. In other cases, the companies make money by serving as the default choice for support and training contracts (and sometimes implementation services as well).

The level of community contribution in commercially driven open source projects depends on the strategy of the company. In most cases (such as with DotNetNuke, eZ Publish, and Hippo), the core application is managed by the company, and the community develops add-on modules.

In other cases (such as with Alfresco), only the commercial version is officially supported. Note that in this case, support fees can become quite steep, equaling or even exceeding the support and main-tenance fee for a comparative commercial offering.

On the whole, though, most of the same evaluation criteria apply here as with "noncommercial" open source solutions. You will want to look for a broad development community with a history of steady improvements and support.

However, because of the dominance of a single vendor providing support, consulting, and controlling the code base, you should recognize that the communities around these tools tend to be less diverse and vibrant than open source projects managed by an independent foundation supported by a plethora of different firms. The one exception here would be DotNetNuke, which—although controlled from a code base standpoint by a commercial firm started by project founders—still boasts an unusually broad and vibrant ecosystem of commercial add-on developers.

Platform Versus Product

One reason project velocity and staying power matter is that, with rare exceptions, open source WCM packages actually require substantial integration. Although it varies from package to package, they tend to take a "platform" orientation, which is more innately friendly to developers and power users than to more casual business contributors. Of course, this benefits you if you’re looking to create a highly custom solution. And since open source platforms typically adhere more closely to industry standards than commercial alternatives, you shouldn’t write off enterprise integration either. However, by the same token, don’t look for prebuilt ERP or SharePoint connectors like you might find in commercial WCM tools.

The trend in most open source modules is to maintain a product "core" that’s extensible with third-party modules. The idea is that developers out in the community can create their own (sometimes commercial) modules, and customers can pick from among them for what they need. You don’t like the workflow that ships with the core package? No problem. You can choose from among three replacement workflow modules; just select the one that works for you.

In theory, this creates a Darwinian process, elevating more popular modules and winnowing out the ones that don’t work well. But in reality, most of the time, it leads to a very messy ecosystem that confuses people who aren’t full-time consultants working with that platform. Unsuspecting adopters are frequently surprised to find that the optional modules they implemented have created security or upgrade problems at some point. One of the reasons a group of Drupal project leaders launched a commercial firm called Acquia was to certify and harden a short list of third-party modules from among the hundreds available to Drupal developers.

The PHP-based WCM platform Joomla! has been something of an exception to this "platform" trend. Project leaders have worked hard to keep it a simple, author-friendly product. Thus, Joomla! is much loved among small businesses and personal website owners as a result. Larger enterprises that have tried to adopt Joomla! (especially for public websites) tend to come away disappointed with its lack of essential controls, such as custom roles, custom workflows, and a proper staging environment.

Joomla! enthusiasts counter that many of these shortcomings can be addressed with third-party modules. But at that point, the platform loses its halo of simplicity, and you’ll likely want an experienced consultant to hold your hand while you’re navigating through the broad ecosystem of potential add-ons.

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