Open source CMS technologies add to Web content management options

An active and crowded open-source community of Web content management system providers means companies in the market for WCM platforms have plenty of options to consider when shopping for a product.

The open source community for Web content management system technology is active and ample, which means companies in the market for WCM platforms have plenty of options to consider when compared to nearly any other category of enterprise software.

“There are tons of open source offerings in the space,” said Scott Liewehr, lead analyst in the WCM practice at Outsell’s Gilbane Services, a Cambridge, Mass.-based research and consulting firm specializing in content management technologies. “In general, folks who work on the Web tend to be more open to being open — that’s kind of what the Web is. It just follows suit that the systems that manage Web content are readily shared.”

As with any type of open source software, companies tend to gravitate to open source content management system (CMS) technologies primarily because of cost issues, given that many of the platforms are available under free licenses. The other major advantage of the open source approach, for a CMS or any other type of software, is the rich community of experts and deep portfolio of extensible code that are typically available, giving organizations a wide variety of resources to draw on to support and evolve their websites.

Most experts agree that open source makes the most sense for companies that need absolute transparency into their CMS code or have heavy-duty customization requirements. On the other end of the spectrum, an open source CMS can also benefit users looking to find a platform that fits their WCM needs right out of the box. This is especially true if the organization doesn’t have the budget for a big up-front investment, according to Darin Stewart, a research director at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

Where an open-source CMS is unlikely to fit is in an established environment with many integration requirements and limited IT resources. “If you are a big Oracle shop and everyone there knows Oracle, it doesn’t make sense to grab an open source product and try to integrate it,” Stewart said. “Rather, [it’s better to] get something that plays nicely with your main system and that your resources can already support.”

Evaluating the open source CMS tradeoffs
Many of the perceived advantages of open source technology can become disadvantages, depending on the type of organization involved and the depth of its IT resources. For example, companies in heavily regulated industries like finance and health care might harbor concerns about the security of open source software. In addition, while the community aspect of open source is likely its greatest asset, the vast libraries of extensible code, customizations and templates really only benefit users with enough IT expertise to get their hands dirty.

“It often comes down to how willing a company is to … deal with not-so-perfect software,” Liewehr said. “The team needs to be willing to roll up its sleeves and work with the code to address any shortcomings.”

Compared with proprietary packaged applications that are directly supported by their vendors, technical support often is less formal in the open source CMS world. For many open source users, “the support model is basically the kindness of strangers,” Stewart said. “If you have a question or support issue, you throw it out to the community and hope you get a good response.”

Longevity of software projects is another consideration. Open source platforms sometimes come and go, depending on the interest levels in their individual communities, so companies need to be sure to align with an open source CMS option that has a strong and active community that’s in it for the long run to ensure ongoing management of the WCM strategy.

Finally, there’s the matter of cost. While open source software has been promoted as a less expensive option to commercial applications, much of the cost savings associated with free licenses disappears when you start to factor in support fees and staffing requirements. Many organizations attracted by free open source code have found they have a skills gap internally, and hiring people with the right expertise puts overall costs on par with using traditional licensed software.

In fact, as many open source providers adopt more of a hybrid approach by offering small license fees combined with tiered support programs, companies looking for WCM platforms might not make price the primary consideration. Instead, they might evaluate the available technologies according to functional differences as opposed to the specific tradeoffs associated with open source or commercial licenses.

“We’re seeing less and less of a distinction between open source and commercial,” said Tony Byrne, president of Real Story Group, an analyst firm that’s based in Olney, Md., and focuses on content management technologies. “The differences between them are starting to evaporate. Many of the major open source projects are becoming more commercialized, and vendors can’t argue that they are cheaper anymore.”

Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer who has been covering the intersection of technology and business for 25-plus years for a variety of trade and business publications and websites. 

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