Open Source CMS Edges Toward the Mainstream

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Real Costs of Open Source
Most of these packages are Hypertext Preprocessor-based. Known as PHP, this is an open source, server-side, HTML-embedded scripting language used to create dynamic Web pages. Blossom explains, "PHP is the key for many of these systems. It's an interpreted language similar to Perl, which doesn't require a compiled executable to operate—a Web page defined via PHP gets loaded, interpreted, and executed each time it's invoked" (it can be cached to reduce interpretation overhead). "Libraries to support PHP are built into most Apache Web server releases, as are mySQL libraries, so, it's near-zero incremental investment for most systems to use CMS on the typical rack server," Blossom says.

It's important to keep in mind, however, that open source does not mean free, says Frank Gilbane, CEO at Bluebill Advisors, a consulting firm that specializes in content management solutions. "There are lots of development costs associated with the open source systems. The licenses are free, but you still have to surround any CMS application with a lot of services. This is at least as true with open source as commercial packages," Gilbane says.

In fact, it is in this specialization and customization that many open source companies make their living. Rob Page, CEO at Zope, a Virginia open source content manager software company, says that his company offers the server component—what he calls the Zope platform—for free, but then makes money by developing vertical niche solutions built on top of the free platform. Zope is one of the few open source vendors to offer an ECM product, although they steer away from workflow management.

Bard Farstad, cofounder of eZ systems, which makes an open source CM software called eZ publish, says his company offers both open source and professional licenses, but they earn the bulk of their revenue from consulting and customization services and from partnerships.

Will Open Play in the Enterprise?
If you are looking for a lot of flexibility and have a powerful in-house development team that can work together with consultants as need be, open source content management systems can work in the enterprise. In fact, several of the better-known open source content management companies like Zope compete with the proprietary solutions for enterprise sales. But for the most part, Goodwin doesn't see them as a big threat to the major ECM players.

Gilbane does not believe it needs to be an either/or question between open source and proprietary offerings. He believes there is room for both. "If you have a strong development group, there is a lot of flexibility and you can build a lot of custom applications. If you have a spectrum where you build a CMS yourself on one end and commercial solutions at the other end, open source can sit in the middle. Think of open source as tools you use for delivery of content. Consider both open source and commercial. There is no reason not to mix and match them," Gilbane says.

One commercial site, Boston.com, the Web site of the Boston Globe, chose Zope to help them transition from an internally developed CMS. The company worked closely with Zope to develop what resulted in a highly customized version of the open source product. Eric Bauer, information architect at Boston.com says, "They were a big part of our installation. We had to extend the product in ways it hadn't been extended before. I don't think any of the existing Zope installations had our volume in terms of page views, but also in terms of content under management and how much is being changed in the course of a day."

Farstad says it is precisely this flexibility that attracts companies to open source. Additionally, once you go with a popular open source product, you are not tied to the original developer of the product, making purchasing consulting and services more flexible and competitive. "If you want to make an extension or modification, you do not need to use the one and only vendor, you can use any consultancy company. For eZ publish, there are consultants all over the world specializing in eZ publish. You are free to choose any company with the competency to do the modification," Farstad says.

Just as with operating systems, open source is not for everyone. Goodwin says that some companies prefer to have the security of a company behind them for better or for worse. "The enterprise doesn't like the general unaccountability of open source CMS projects. Without a financial motivator, which creates a centralized and accountable support mechanism, as well as a desire to ‘stay in business,' the enterprise will shy away from open source CMSs," Goodwin says.

Gilbane agrees, but he thinks it's less a matter of open source itself and more a lack of core end user support. "Support is one issue, but not necessarily technical support," Gilbane says. "These days most people are comfortable with the stability of open source code. It's more, how do you support users who don't understand the user interface because typically, open source solutions don't have great user interfaces. People arguing against open source are the ones thinking about those problems."

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