Open Source vs Proprietary CMS

4 min read
in Blog, Community, Security, Web Development
making the right CMS choice

Recently we’ve been hearing from our clients about companies like Hibu and other web developers offering websites built on proprietary content management systems (CMSs). We’ve received quite a few questions about which CMS is best and why we build on WordPress. This post will help explain some of those differences.

What is a CMS?

CMS stands for Content Management System. Put simply, it’s the software that sits on a web server and makes your website function. A CMS makes sure website administrators can update content like text and images or interact with the public without having to learn how to code a website. There are numerous CMSs in existence. Some are free and open source. Some are proprietary and have to be purchased or licensed.

Open Source CMSs:

  • Are created and developed by people worldwide. There is usually one controlling body, but the system itself belongs to no one and is free to use.
  • The source code of the CMS is available to all. Anybody with the necessary skill can modify the code and create new functionality where it’s needed.
  • Can be hosted on almost any server.
  • The software itself is usually free. If you hire a firm or individual to build a site, you are paying for customization, design, hosting, etc.

Proprietary Systems:

  • Are built and maintained by one company or as part of a controlled partnership.
  • The source code can only be modified by the people who built the original CMS, although the more reputable companies provide a framework that allows other developers to create extensions for an additional cost.
  • Are typically hosted by the company that built the CMS, or on a leased, private server.
  • Often require an ongoing license fee that must be paid indefinitely. Frequently, this is built into the cost of hosting.

Open Source

There are dozens of popular open source platforms, with names that may sound familiar: WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, DNN, Magento, etc. Ask any web developer which one is best and you’ll hear different answers. (We’ve developed hundreds of sites using WordPress. You can probably guess which one is our favorite.) Since WordPress powers almost one third of the internet (and that number is growing daily), it is quickly becoming the default standard for open source CMS systems.

An open source system might be best for you if you’re looking for a budget-friendly solution, in that open source systems are free of ongoing licensing costs. That said, you’ll want to have a plan in place for keeping that software updated for bugs, security issues, and future enhancements. Because it’s a duplicatable system, it can be deployed quickly; for example, we can create a fresh WordPress installation in under ten minutes. You might have a unique idea for your website, but you don’t want to hire a full stack developer to implement it. It’s also a good solution for you if your online presence is key to your business and you can’t afford downtime due to being stranded without a developer. (We’ve seen it happen.) If your blog is a major component of your business, it might interest you to know that WordPress in particular started as a blogging platform. Because of this, it integrates smoothly and easily with social media portals and other blogs.

There are some other things to consider when looking at open source systems. Without a custom design, your website runs the risk of looking like a template. There are themes available which you can purchase and customize, but this process often involves creating custom code in order to achieve the specific look you want. Also, if you’re using a purchased website template or theme, it may not match your printed materials. This can be overcome by hiring someone who designs for both print and web. While some systems automatically install software updates, some do not. It’s possible that you’ll need to perform your own site maintenance if you don’t hire a developer to handle that for you.

Which CMS is the most common?

WordPress is the most popular and accessible CMS in the world. As of this writing, WordPress powers about 30% of the internet and represents about 60% of all CMS usage. The next most popular CMS is Joomla with only 3% representation across the internet. Hibu’s market share (along with other proprietary CMSs) is less that 0.1% and doesn’t even register on the list.*

Proprietary Systems

Just as there are many choices in open source systems, there are even more choices with proprietary systems. In fact, creating a proprietary system used to be the method of choice for developers, partially due to a lack of reliable open source solutions. However, as the open source community grows, proprietary systems are becoming more difficult to find.

What’s most important here is the trust you’re placing in your developer. They alone are responsible for the maintenance of their software, and it’s up to them to make sure your website remains compliant with standards and practices, which continue to evolve. You’re also putting implicit trust in their servers, since it’s unlikely that you can move your website elsewhere should your hosting needs change.

A proprietary system might be your best choice if you’re looking mainly for a static website that enhances your online presence, but isn’t the key factor in your business’ success. It works well if you prefer a completely hands-off experience, where you simply purchase a full-service hosting plan and turn over all technological control to your developer. Be aware, however, that this could cause delays if you need to update your content, since they may be the only ones who can do it.

Along with placing full trust in the developer for your proprietary CMS, it should be noted that future enhancements or customizations may cost more than with an open source system. The more customized your design, the higher the possibility that content-related functions or expansions may become limited. And it is of utmost importance that you vet any developer who offers a proprietary CMS, as some platforms don’t keep up with the never-ending updates and enhancements in social networking and search algorithms. You need to know that your developer is personally keeping track of how the internet is evolving; they don’t have the same kind of community support that you can find in the open source community.

So Which Choice Is the Right Choice?

When it comes down to it, nobody knows your business better than you do. Hopefully this post will raise some questions that you may not have considered before, and spark a conversation either internally or with your chosen developer. We know that we best serve our clients by giving them all the information they need to make informed choices. If what you’ve read here has gotten you thinking, give us a call. We’d be happy to answer any questions you might have.

* Source:

Meet the Author

Jason is a co-founder of ThirdSide. When he’s not building websites, making graphics, or meeting clients, he’s hanging out with his family doing family things or hanging out with performers doing performer things.

He has a Star Wars obsession that some consider to be…unnatural.

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