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Open Source vs Closed Source CMS: Which Content Management System is Right for You?

open source vs closed source content management systems

As brands continue to embrace the digital storm, choosing the right software to power your online efforts is a mission-critical driver of your success. You need a website to convert customers and build your brand's voice and identity.

But, how do you build this website? There are thousands of options out there when it comes to building your online identity. If you've been charged with finding the right content management system (CMS) you may find all of these options confusing and complicated.

You've probably seen the terms open source and closed source tossed around when talking about CMS platform. So, what do they mean? Let's cut through the technical jargon and compare both open source and closed source content management platforms and figure out what the differences are and which one is right for your unique needs.

What is a Content Management System?

A content management system (CMS) is an application (or set of digital tools) that can be used to manage, store, create, and edit digital content. While the term CMS is relatively broad, you can break it down into simpler terms.

A content management system helps you build a website rapidly without lots of coding. It's the framework of your website, and it lets you add content and edit posts without jumping straight into HTML, CSS, etc.

There are certainly plenty of content management systems. For the purposes of this post, we're focusing on web content management systems (e.g., WordPress, Joomla, QuickSilk, etc.) as opposed to some of the more niche CMS options out there — like those that specifically help with document management.

Even still, there are thousands of web CMSs on the market. You can narrow these down by breaking them into four primary categories.

  1. Open source
  2. Closed source (traditional)
  3. Closed source (SaaS)
  4. Custom built

What is an Open Source CMS?

Open source CMSs are free-to-use and maintained by a community of developers. Often, this community of developers is fractured across multiple states, countries, and continents. To enable all of these developers to contribute to the CMS as a project, the source code of open source CMSs are made public.

This means that the general public can modify and optimize open source CMSs freely. There's a strange duality in open source software. On the one hand, the philosophical movement of freedom that guides it forward is reminiscent of the earlier days of the internet. It feels pure and liberated. At the same time, the very system that makes open source so appealing is the source of its vulnerabilities. Since anyone has access to the source code, rogueish threat actors can easily manipulate the code to attack websites and disperse malware.

Of course, open source CMSs are the most popular options on the market. Since they are free, anyone can easily jump into them and launch a website. But, that doesn't necessarily make them the best option for businesses, governments, or public figures — since they are often lacking in the security department (more on this later.)

Some examples of open source CMS platforms:

  • WordPress
  • Joomla
  • Drupal
  • Contao

What is a Closed Source CMS?

Closed source CMSs are proprietary, which means that no one (other than internal developers) have access to the source code. All closed source CMSs cost money since they require paid upkeep to maintain. Or, to simplify the situation even further, closed source CMSs follow a business model. They protect their product (the CMS in this case) and distribute a polished system to paid customers.

Of course, the main drawback in the eyes of open source proponents is that they cost money. But, as we'll detail later, that doesn't make them more expensive than open source platforms — especially for businesses, universities, or government institutions.

SaaS vs. Traditional CMS

We can also think about content management systems in terms of how they are delivered to the end user. A traditional CMS (think WordPress) has to be locally installed and maintained on your servers. This means that updates must be made on your server and the source code itself is locally located.

With a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model, the entire CMS is distributed via the cloud. This means that updates, security features, and maintenance are all handled by the CMS provider, and your business doesn't have to worry about maintaining the entire CMS on-site.

There are plenty of benefits to utilizing a SaaS CMS. The "service" aspect means that you don't have to worry about time-consuming maintenance, and you can mitigate unnecessary risks and costs that accompany local hosting.

SaaS is the newer, more disruptive CMS model, and it can help save you the headache of dealing with some of the complexities baked into on-site CMS utilization. Also, while traditional CMSs may seem cheaper upfront, they typically cost more in the long run. With SaaS, you don't have to worry about costs associated with deployment, maintenance, consulting, ad hosting, ssl certificates, etc.

Let's quickly go over some of the pros and cons associated with both traditional and SaaS models of CMSs.

Traditional CMS Pros

  • Locally hosting means that you host all of your sensitive data.
  • Initially cheaper
  • Plenty of option to choose from

Traditional CMS Cons

  • Cost-over-time
  • You are responsible for maintenance
  • On-site hosting can leave you vulnerable to interior threat actors
  • Lengthy deployment time
  • Often has hidden support fees

SaaS CMS Pros

  • Reduced risk
  • Cheaper in the long-run
  • Rapid deployment
  • Vendor handles maintenance
  • Reduced headaches involving ongoing support and updates

SaaS CMS Cons

  • Newer offering so there aren't as many CMS options to choose from
  • Can be more expensive up-front with higher monthly costs
  • Third party has access to your data

What is a Custom Build CMS?

The other option, besides traditional and SaaS, is to custom build your own CMS. This almost never makes sense for a brand unless they are a top-tier enterprise. Building your own CMS is exceptionally costly, can be buggy, and introduces a lifelong cycle of continuous maintenance and updates.

Typically, custom build CMSs are layered on top of open source code. These blended, bespoke products can be appealing for large corporations who have hyper-specific business needs. But, for most, this avenue is certainly going to be the most expensive, and time-consuming option of the three.

We won't go into the pros-and-cons with custom build CMSs, namely because it's such a broad and particular area. The few businesses that do approach a custom-built solution will likely have a full-time dev and ops team dedicated to maintenance, releases, and security — so the custom solution will be specific to that business's unique development ecosystem.

Open Source vs. Closed Source CMS

Now onto the juicy stuff. What's better, a closed source or open source CMS? The answer isn't immediately simple, and there will undoubtedly be situations where each is superior given granular needs. But, we want to approach this subject from an unbiased standpoint. We provide a closed-source SaaS CMS platform, and we've used more than our share of open source software to build websites in the past.

To answer this extensive question, we're going to break this down into a few sections to garner some specific insights. Then, we'll try to land a consensus point of which one is better for which type of business.

Security

In today's environment, to say that security is a mission-critical business driver would be an understatement. By 2023, threat actors will be stealing 33 billion records per year [1]. In fact, in 2018 over 70% of businesses reported experiencing a cyber attack of some nature [2]. And, over half of them experienced a breach as a result of those cyber attacks.

Here's the kicker. Over 60% of small businesses that experienced a cyber attack in 2017 went out-of-business within 6 months [3]!

Security isn't just about reducing risk — it's about keeping your doors open. So, when we think about security, it's important to remember that this is probably the single most important category to consider when you're thinking about which CMS to choose.

This is also the area where open source is the weakest. For starters, saying that open source contributes to the majority of vulnerabilities is an understatement. Since open source relies on freely distributing their source code, they open the doors for threat actors to manipulate and abuse. And, since proprietary (or closed-source) CMSs keep their source code in the hands of their security and development team where it is closely audited and protected, they don't have the plague of security issues that open source system have.

The worst of these is WordPress, which accounted for over 90% of ALL open source CMS vulnerabilities in 2018 [4]. In fact, over 50,000 websites using open source CMS platforms are hacked every single day [5]. That's not an insignificant number. And, here's the kicker — almost all of those WordPress websites were up-to-date.

Clearly, closed source CMSs have superior security, but the story is a little more complicated than that. It's not just that source code is freely distributed. Open source content management systems don't have a clear security directive, and they aren't typically focused on solving security issues for the end user.

Let's explain.

With open source CMSs, you don't have any real security team dealing with issues. In fact, the official WordPress page for "Help! I think I've been hacked" basically tells you to delete your website and purchase cybersecurity elements [6]. Why? Because WordPress is free! They aren't responsible for the security of your site. Combine that with millions of hackers holding onto the source code itself, and you're in a tricky situation.

Closed source CMSs have dedicated security teams and robust support options to deal with any potential issues —  which is one of its biggest draws.

Cost

One of the most common misconceptions surrounding open source CMSs is that they're free. That's not true. The source code itself is free, sure, but you need a lot more than just some source code to run an effective, secure website.

Let's go over a few of the costs you'll have to consider when you choose an open source CMS.

  • Hosting: You have to host your website on a server. This can run anywhere from $10-a-month to a couple hundred (or even thousand) depending upon the scope of your web hosting requirements
  • Security: You'll also have to invest in security elements to maintain that CMS — both internal and external.
  • Design: Since open source CMSs are free, you'll have to pay for your design elements, including templates.
  • Add-ons: Open source systems operate through the use of 3rd party add-ons. Alone, open source systems don't have many of the robust features that businesses will need (e.g., payment gateways, SEO capabilities, etc.) You'll have to use a combination of free and paid third-party extensions/plugins to achieve the desired functionality.

To clarify, open source CMSs are free. But, only the software itself is free. You still have to pay to maintain and build upon that software.

In the end, closed source options may end up being cheaper. You don't have to pay additional staff to maintain your website, and you don't have to shell out money for expensive design elements and add-ons. Running a business website on WordPress could cost you up to $30,000 a month or more depending upon your size. So, open source certainly does not equal free.

Of course, some high-tier closed source CMSs are also extremely expensive. Between licensing costs, the initial brief, and continued support, you may end up paying the same amount (or even more) for specialized closed source CMS systems.

As the old saying goes — "Nothing is free in this world."

Ease-of-Use

Another critical thing to keep in mind is ease-of-use. How simple is setting up, maintaining, and supporting your website?

Open source is undoubtedly more complicated. The entire CMS isn't managed for you. You have to install the correct blend of add-ons, manage security updates, make critical changes to the source code to custom-tailor it to your business, and deal with design elements.

SaaS-based CMSs are far easier to deal with since the entire website is being managed for you. You simply have to drag-and-drop your elements. Many SaaS CMSs (like QuickSilk) also glue accessibility and regulatory standards to their framework, which can take some of the legwork out of creating these solutions by-hand.

Often times, marketing agencies push businesses into open source software since they can continue to profit off of the ongoing maintenance for the website. After all, open source requires constant maintenance and upkeep, as well as the significant up-front establishment costs.

Closed source doesn't have these concerns.

Reliability

One of the main issues facing open source CMSs is that they're built with developers in mind. CMSs are complex. And, since most businesses don't understand all of the nuanced baked into CMS source code, trying to establish your website on an open source content management system can be headache-inducing.

This complexity can lead to some serious reliability issues. In fact, 46% of WordPress websites are currently running on an outdated version, and 57% of WordPress websites are running an outdated version of PHP [7][8].

It's not that open source content management systems are inherently unreliable (though they do have more security issues), but they are so complicated that many businesses simply can't deal with them.

Support

Open source platforms typically have an incredible community of developers and users that will freely offer advice. If there's one thing going for open source, it's the community. But, that same community does introduce some risk into the open source equation by finding bugs and vulnerabilities that can be abused by threat actors post-discovery.

And, online forums and support tickets can take time. With proprietary software, you get immediate support through dedicated channels. This means that your questions and concerns can be rapidly addressed and solved.

When to Use an Open Source CMS vs a Closed Source CMS

Choosing the right content management system can help you reduce risk, save capital, and maintain your hard-earned credibility and reputation.

For many personal websites, open source CMSs may be the perfect choice. They can be launched on a budget (especially if you don't expect many visitors) and you can dip your toes into the water and learn about website management. But, for most businesses, nonprofits, governments, or universities, open source introduces unnecessary costs and security risks.

In our current cybersecurity ecosystem, choosing an open source CMS introduces you to unnecessary risks. Combine these risks with the complexity, reliability issues, and community-based support, and open source CMSs can quickly become expensive and difficult to maintain.

Often times, the answer to this question comes down to the technical expertise, support staff, and unique business needs of a brand. There is no right or wrong answer. But, close source CMS solutions can help businesses quickly scale and build their websites without significant risk factors.

In the end, you want a CMS that's easy-to-use and right for you.

Are you looking to try QuickSilk's CMS solution for yourself? Do you want to see the benefits of a SaaS CMS for yourself? Contact us.

Sources:

[1] https://us.norton.com/internetsecurity-emerging-threats-10-facts-about-todays-cybersecurity-landscape-that-you-should-know.html

[2] https://www.securitymagazine.com/articles/89586-nearly-70-percent-of-smbs-experience-cyber-attacks

[3] https://www.denverpost.com/2016/10/23/small-companies-cyber-attack-out-of-business/

[4] https://sucuri.net/reports/2018-hacked-website-report

[5] https://www.webarxsecurity.com/website-hacking-statistics-2018-february/

[6] https://codex.wordpress.org/FAQ_My_site_was_hacked

[7] https://blog.nexcess.net/2017/11/06/wordpress-survey-shows-46-of-sites-running-on-old-versions/

[8] https://www.searchenginejournal.com/wordpress-php/277067/

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