Open Source: Is it Right for You?

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Caveats of Concern

An OSCMS may technically be free, but that doesn't mean it comes without a price. Its disadvantages include the following:

  • Support uncertainty: A major risk in adopting an OSCMS is the possibility of a small support community behind it-which increases the chances that the software could be abandonedor experience a shortageof companies providing maintenance assistance and resources.
  • Future-proofing: Implementing patches, updates, and enhancements to the core version of the platform needs to be part of your IT team's strategy.
  • Training: As the solution can be customized to your organization, some level of education may be needed to engage new partners and/or support teams so they know how to best use the solution to meet your organization's needs.

With an open source system, publishers need to understand that they get what they pay for, says Barr. "Don't be deceived by the lack of an upfront price tag," Barr says. "You are either going to spend money developing and maintaining expertise, or you are going to need to pay for that help. [Publishers] shouldn't incorporate software into their core business processes which they are not paying to support or willing to support themselves."

Bob Egner, vice president of product management for EPiServer, Inc., a Chicago-headquartered web CMS software company, cautions that open source may not be the best answer for many electronic publishers.

"If you've got a simple set of content you need to publish, most open source software can do an adequate job of providing the platform to write and create content," Egner said. "But to drive to the next level, you may find shortcomings in areas like online engagement and managing advertising placement. [With OSCMS], the auctioning or spot buy capabilities to reprice different areas of advertising slots on the site become a much bigger challenge for online publishers. And these are functions that OSCMS has not really built out to support."

Egner says his customers have switched from an open source platform to a commercial and proprietary content management system because OSS is simply "too much work."

"They've found a lot of missing functionality. They either have to build [solutions] themselves or find some other technology components which are not free from a licensing standpoint," says Egner.

Ultimately, the risks of OSS development are identical to those of any software project. "Vendors can over-promise and under-deliver just like OSS projects can," says O'Connor. "The best way to ensure that your project is successful is to invest in up-front planning and developing acceptance criteria."

Things to Consider Before Committing to Open Source
Prior to choosing an OSCMS, experts recommend performing the necessary due diligence. "Although an OSCMS's core of features is key, more important is the ability to provide flexible-and cheap-customizations to satisfy the needs of digital publishers, allowing them to also differentiate from competitors," says Rubim.
Above all, make sure you have the necessary support system in place. "That means working with enterprise open source provided by vendors like Red Hat or Alfresco, having a reliable jack-of-all trades consultant, or managing a team of consultants," Barr says.

Not all OSCMSs are equal, cautioned Goodnight. Before jumping into any product, involve someone in scoping and creating the solution around what you need and then design something as simple to use as possible.

"Once you have settled on a solid design, compare the features you need against the best-of-breed OSCMS systems available," Goodnight says. "And check to make sure there are plenty of local providers that can support the platform."

Additionally, the OSCMS should provide an easy-to-use and intuitive interface to maximize productivity, thus minimizing the need for training and technical understanding of how to interact with the platform. The platform should also be reliable and fast to a point where it can handle viral posts, content moderation, and content update and dissemination at a speed your business requires.

O'Connor says he would consider carefully how you plan to monetize your site as well. "Are you selling e-books and subscriptions? Will your customers manage their accounts over the web? Will you have a paywall? Only after you have a solid business understanding-and a plan to increase revenue-should you start looking at software options," says O'Connor.

Forecasting the Future of Free
Rubim predicted that OSCMSs will continue to be used by more businesses across the digital content publishing spectrum.

"Aligned with cloud providers, mobile solutions and SaaS (on-demand software) models, (OSCMSs) will provide the best of both worlds to content publishers-state-of-the-art software features along with an economically sustainable production and support model," says Rubim.

Goodnight expects a handful of worthy solutions to rise to the top in coming years, while proprietary systems will either be forced to change their business model or perish. "Anyone who thinks their software is too deeply ingrained, big and expensive to be displaced by an open source framework is just kidding themselves," he says.

Finally, while it will always be necessary for a team to use a system to manage digital content and prepare it for publication, the OSCMS arena will evolve in two key ways in the near future. "Mobile support will continue to become more important, and the cost savings of leveraging a cloud provider to host the system will become more compelling," says Barr.

Choosing a CMS is never an easy decision-even when the software is free-but it's become ever more challenging as the choices and feature sets have continued to grow. Now companies must not only choose between vendors, but they must decide whether or not open source products are also in the running. And our experts seem to agree, you should at least be considering OSCMS.


Adobe Systems, Inc.

Alfresco Software, Inc.

Android operating system

Apache HTTP Server


Commerce Guys

The Economist Newspaper Ltd.


The Goodnight Group, LLC

Harvard Business Review



Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc.

Mozilla Firefox internet browser

OpenText Corp.



Red Hat, Inc.

The Reynolds and Reynolds Co.

Standard Register

U.S. Department of Energy

Volacci Corp.



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