Build, Buy, or Rent?

Aug 03, 2004


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A triple-barreled question facing many enterprises today is whether to use an application-building tool or "framework" to build a content management system (CMS); to buy one of the many out-of-the-box finished products in use by major Web sites; or to simply rent a CMS from an application service provider (ASP) and avoid the headache of running an application server in the enterprise's data center.

CMS Arts and Crafts--Build
Tens of thousands of CMS developers are rolling out their own content management systems with open-source application frameworks like Zope or PHP, as well as proprietary tools like Macromedia ColdFusion and Microsoft .NET and Active Server Pages (another kind of ASP). Since every enterprise has unique content needs, it seems smart to tailor the CMS to match an organization's content and business rules. But this is a little like everyone programming their own desktop publishing tool. There is a reason why Adobe PageMaker and Quark Xpress dominate their industry; much of what we publish is similar in presentation or style to other publications, and standard tools facilitate productivity.

If your content and business process/workflow is truly different then it makes sense to build your own CMS, but keep in mind that you may be more attracted to the technology (the medium) than to your content (the message). If you must build it yourself, you might be better served by hiring an experienced open-source CMS developer team to work alongside your team.

Your in-house development team may wow you with specific content delivery, but will their code stand up to integration with other applications when the time comes? Far too many of those building their own content management systems justify development costs by dreaming of sales to the rest of the world. With a couple of thousand content management systems being offered it's a buyer's marketplace, but there's a very high chaff-to-wheat ratio.

Caveat Vendor--Buy
The dot-com bubble has rocked Very few industries as much as CMS vendors. They were enticed to provide sophisticated Web sites to all the venture-funded dot-com startups and the Fortune 1000. Budgets were fantastic. Schedules were unrealistic. Claims were hyperbolic. Eventually the financial backers went ballistic and the bubble burst, but in the short term, huge revenues flowed to CMS market leaders like Vignette, Documentum, Interwoven, and Broadvision.

Industry survivors have used their vast income to build (with research and development) and buy (with mergers and acquisitions) major technology improvements, so today's companies are likely to provide solid products in the coming years of CMS realism.

Note that you might also "buy" an open-source CMS by going to the many independent CMS developer/consultants who will build it to your specifications.

Try Before You Buy--Rent
The original hosted content management systems at application service providers like Atomz Publish and CrownPeak Advantage were designed from the get-go as ASP services. These and blog software products like Google's Blogger and MovableType's TypePad show the success of the rent-an-app business model.

But increasingly, major licensed CM systems are being installed at ASP shops, often spin-offs from professional services firms who partner with the CMS vendor. This means an enterprise can rent the CMS for a short or long period and back out without sunk licensing costs. OpenSourceCMS.com offers a few dozen open-source systems for rent.

When renting, all production software is housed at a huge central ASP server with high-availability Internet connections. This central server can deliver your finished pages to a production server, at your own or another hosted Web server. Constant upgrades of the toolset occur transparently at the ASP, and enterprises need only train workers to create and maintain their pages remotely.

So where does this leave us? The best strategy may be a timed sequence of two of the three options: First rent, then buy. If you can rent your CMS of choice from an ASP, it may be the ideal way to test drive it in a mission-critical environment long enough to know whether you really want to own it. Just make sure the contract includes migration of all your data onto your own servers when the time comes.