Open Source: Is it Right for You?

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Article ImageThey say the best things in life are free: love, health, happiness--and maybe even software. Indeed, completely gratis open source software (OSS) with no licensing strings attached is all the rage today, as evidenced by the popularity and proliferation of OSS products currently in use, including the Apache HTTP Server, Linux, Android operating systems, internet browser Mozilla Firefox, and ecommerce platform osCommerce.

In fact, a 2011 survey by Gartner, Inc. revealed that more than half of organizations polled have adopted OSS solutions as part of their IT strategies. Flexibility, shorter development times, increased innovation, and faster procurement processes were listed as reasons for adopting OSS solutions by nearly 1 out of 3 respondents.

These reasons, coupled with lower costs, are why open source content management systems (OSCMSs) such as Drupal, WordPress, and Joomla are more widely used by digital publishers and electronic content providers nowadays. Many companies have jumped ship from proprietary systems such as those offered by Oracle, Adobe, Documentum, and OpenText to an OSCMS solution, with the potential to save hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process, says Felipe Rubim, chief technology architect for Ci&T, a King of Prussia, Pa.-based web and mobile application services and software product engineering company.

The Allure of OSS to Publishers

In the past few years, OSCMS has reached a level of quality and time-to-market demanded by digital publishers, according to Rubim. "These OSS solutions can now keep up with the pace previously owned by only proprietary software and in-house solutions, especially for enterprises," says Rubim.

An OSCMS should be considered by electronic content providers, says Todd Barr, CMO of Alfresco Software, Inc., an OSCMS provider in Atlanta, because it offers unparalleled flexibility in meeting unique needs. "By taking a standards-based approach, digital publishers can mix and match solutions from a variety of vendors with a variety of support levels to meet their project requirements and stay within budget," says Barr. Examples of content-heavy sites that currently rely on OSCMS tools to help publish content include Harvard Business Review, Economist.com, Martha Stewart.com, ZAGAT.com, and American Public Media's Marketplace.

"Open source makes for better software," says Mike O'Connor, co-founder and president of Commerce Guys in Ann Arbor, Mich., an e-commerce business that integrates Drupal into its customers' internet sales platforms. "It is especially important for publishers because the world of publishing is changing rapidly. In the last few years, we've seen a transition from primarily print-based media to electronic consumption. However, the customer experience varies for every publisher. The needs of an engineer referencing a trade journal and those of a reader browsing the news are very different. The best way to meet these divergent customer needs is with [open source] software that gives you full control of both the data as well as how you present it."

Modern OSCMSs have evolved to provide better user interfaces for system administrators and content managers/publishers, improved code structure and architecture to embrace more developers, and enhanced support to connect to different channels (e.g., mobile) and solutions (analytics, customer relationship management, etc.).

Mark Goodnight, principal with The Goodnight Group, LLC, a Reston, Va.-headquartered content intelligence consulting firm, says his clients were clamoring for affordable and effective CMS solutions since he was a technical business consultant in 1995 for Standard Register and The Reynolds and Reynolds Co., two of the largest document production companies around.

"My job was to assist clients who wanted to move off paper solutions onto digital media, improving the related business processes as a result," Goodnight says. "As their infrastructures improved, software solutions somehow remained out of the reach of their wallets. That entire model is turned on its head now. Even the smallest of businesses can deploy a robust, world-class CMS solution at a fraction of the cost if they adopt one of the better OSCMS products."

Goodnight says he's seen many government and private organizations with an expensive proprietary CMS in place that actually uses only about 10% of its capability. "This is in large part due to the fact that the interfaces for these proprietary systems are cumbersome, confusing and just not very intuitive," says Goodnight. "This leads to using the platforms as a glorified shared drive."

One Uncle Sam entity that recently migrated to OSCMS, saving taxpayers an estimated $10 million per year in the process, is the U.S. Department of Energy, says Ben Finklea, CEO of Volacci Corp., a Drupal-focused internet marketing firm in Austin, Texas.

"OSCMS can replace publishing software, intranets, extranets, blogs, corporate relations, project management (software), social networks and so much more," Finklea says.

The Benefits of an Open Source CMS

Like any business decision, choosing to work with an OSCMS has its own pros and cons. The advantages of using an OSCMS include the following:

  • No licensing fee
  • Ample community support from developers around the globe who are constantly working to improve the platform
  • Personalization (Since the code is open, users have more freedom to customize the solution for their own use.)
  • Faster time-to-market (Since most OSCMSs leverage many companies using the platform, new implementations are quickly shared with the community.)
  • Preloaded tools (Users can employ thousands of preloaded components created by the community.)
  • No vendor lock-in
  • Flexibility (An organization can integrate with any other solution, as opposed to the ones limited by proprietary software companies.)

"Depending on the platform, you can save hundreds of thousands in hard costs (using an OSCMS)," says O'Connor, who added that most users cite the cost savings reaped by eliminating license fees as the greatest benefit. "However, the real question is, how much more can you make due to the ability provided by OSS to innovate faster than your competitors and build a site that better fits your users?"

For Goodnight, the biggest plus of using an OSCMS is the support infrastructure. While subscription services for OSCMS support are the norm, "[W]ith open source there are literally thousands of very bright developers who are more than happy to help with any issue or development ideas you may have," he says. "After many years integrating a proprietary ECM system, I can't tell you how many times I would call their helpdesk only to be told that their most experienced engineers had left the company, leaving me on my own to solve their bug. Give me the open world of a collective intelligence any day."

Eliminating vendor lock-in is another major boon. "Because the code is available to everyone, your needs can be fulfilled by many companies," says O'Connor.
An additional OSS advantage is innovation, O'Connor adds. Many OSS projects have hundreds of developers from dozens of countries around the world contributing to it, which helps the software keep pace with industry trends.

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