Greg  Mathews Greg Mathews | 27 Nov 2019

When you engage an agency to create a custom enterprise website, the bulk of the bill is always going to be for the build itself. That is, you’re paying for the people at the agency to do the work.

The expertise of an entire team of people is valuable. It’s not just the nuts and bolts development, but also the overall design that an agency is working on. They’re doing the research on user needs and working that into navigation choices, interface design, and more. It’s definitely a worthwhile investment. But is it worth it to add an additional cost on top by paying for a licenced content management system when you could use a free platform? After all, some open source platforms are powerful, reputable, and widely used by some very big companies. So what kind of strategic thinking leads a business to shell out for something they could have for free? The fact is, the choice of using open source or licensed CMS is simply an indication of different priorities in play. 

A fork in the path 

The three main areas of divergence between open source and licensed CMS products are security, scalability, and accountability. Divergence is perhaps even too strong a word, since both types of platforms can—for the most part—be made to do the same types of things. But investment in these three areas is a matter of significant difference. All three come down to the same core point: an open source CMS is primarily community supported and a licensed CMS has dedicated proprietary support by a commercial parent company. And this is where and why the costs come into it. 

In terms of security, there’s a very simple difference in accessibility to the code. Licensed products have proprietary code, which means the CMS vendor exercises a degree quality control over what their partnered developers produce and can do with the platform. On the other hand, open source is, well, open to anyone. That doesn’t only mean that anyone can theoretically build their own website (a good thing). It also means that anyone with malicious intent can get a good look at the nuts and bolts behind every website using that open source code (a bad thing).  

Licensed products monitor bugs and breaches, and issue regular security patches to partners ensuring smooth running. It’s part of the licence agreement. Open source, however, largely relies on the community to not only to report, but also to fix many of the security problems. So while you’re not buying the licence on an open source platform, you may have to pay out for quality security and backup to protect against attacks. 

Appetite for growth 

Scalability is a website’s ability to grow with an organisation. For many young businesses, the temptation is strong to go straight for an open source website to save money in the short term. And indeed, that may prove to be good strategy. For a business experiencing rapid growth, however, or one with a specific development plan in place, having a website built on with a true enterprise-level, licenced CMS with substantial flexibility built in, can potentially save time and money in the long run.  

Consider integration tools such as HR training portals or appointment booking software. A young company may not feel bothered about needing such integrations right now, with low staff and customer numbers making things manageable. But after experiencing even a small burst of growth in customer demand or an expanding workforce—suddenly there may be a need for software integrations. A licensed enterprise CMS will have a robust integration bus built into its fabric, allowing for easy connections with third party tools. It’s not that these integrations aren’t possible on open source. It’s that integrations often aren’t supported as a matter of course. Though the community may have some insight, the work is harder, taking longer, and costing more. 

The head of the table 

Both security and scalability are related to accountability. At the end of the day, who is behind the curtain pulling the levers on the code? For open source platforms, it’s the community. The community is responsible, essentially, for policing the quality of the product and delivering innovation through it. If you have a support agreement with an agency, they will be sourcing their solutions from their own expertise of course, but also from that community. With a licensed product, there is the parent company to turn to. If there is a problem that fundamentally turns out to be a bug—in other words, your agency can’t fix it, no matter how good they are—the platform gets regularly audited and solutions get issued from the top. No make-do-and-mend. 

At the end of the day, the question isn’t ‘why spend the money?’ The question is ‘when will you spend it?’. You can more upfront on a licenced CMS that will probably save you time and take a lot of potential question marks out of your digital strategy. Or you can spend it in little bits on an integration here and there, custom security needs, and running questions through community support. Both types of platforms work. Both create amazing websites. It’s all down to your priorities. 

If you’d like to talk more about the different platforms, please contact Client Services Director Greg Mathews.