In the past decade, enterprises have increasingly turned to open source software (OSS) to replace proprietary solutions, due to four factors:

  • Open source software is more mature.
  • The innovation achieved by a collaborative community is arguably better than closed, proprietary solutions.
  • Services and support are more widely available.
  • The true total cost of ownership is far less than proprietary vendors.

However, with this increase in adoption comes an increase in OSS solutions to choose from, and this surge has created expectations in the market that not every OSS meets. Here are ten critical things to consider before choosing an open source CMS (and most of the questions apply to open source solutions in general, if you’re looking at OSS for other areas of your business).

1. When you say open source, do you actually mean software you don’t have to pay for?

Open Source Software (OSS) is known for being free, as in “free speech,” not “free beer.” This means that users have the right to change and redistribute the source code. The creators of OSS projects can distribute the software at any cost they want; as long as there is access to the source code, it’s still considered free. As you start reviewing open source CMSs, stay aware that the promised benefit is in the access to the source code, and not necessarily the cost (though many open source CMSs are free or offered at a more competitive price than proprietary solutions).

2. Do they have an enterprise edition (or enterprise support)?

Many companies offer a version of their OSS that has been coded for enterprise use cases and provides additional security and support that a typical open source user may not need. If there isn’t an enterprise option, have a plan for how you’ll support the solution in the long-run.

Because OSS is developed with a community, it can often be created at a lower cost than proprietary solutions. Even the additional cost for an enterprise edition tends to be more affordable than nonfree programs, which is another appealing benefit of OSS.

3. How active is their community?

Part of the promise of open source is the innovation that comes from the community — but that requires an active community. You can check this by looking at the volume and frequency of posts in their community forums, seeing if there is a healthy amount of conversation on sites like Stack Exchange, or doing a simple Google search to see if there are open source contributors that are actively working on the project.

4. Does your dev team like it?

Open source CMSs are, by nature, incredibly flexible. With enough elbow grease, all of them can be developed to do whatever you need them to do. But if your development team is unfamiliar with or doesn’t prefer a particular CMS, getting the right functionality will be difficult. One of the biggest draws of open source CMS is having a more affordable solution, but extended project timelines or new development trainings undermine these cost savings.

Another consideration is whether the CMS works with your current technology stack. For example, if most of your organization uses Microsoft and .NET, it doesn’t make sense to use a CMS built on Java. These are some of the more popular open source CMSs for different platforms:

  • Java
    • Alfresco
    • Liferay
    • LogicalDOC
    • OpenCMS
    • Magnolia
  • Microsoft ASP.NET
    • DNN
    • Kentico CMS
    • Umbraco
  • PHP
    • Wordpress
    • Drupal
    • Joomla
    • Magento
    • TextPattern
  • Python
    • Django CMS
    • Mezzanine
  • Ruby on Rails
    • Radiant
    • Browser CMS
    • Refinery CMS

5. Do your end users like it?

After the initial development, you still need to convince your content writers and administrators how to use the CMS. Many CMSs have trials or interactive demos online that will give your users a sense for what it’s like to use the system. Give them a chance to identify significant pain points so that your dev team can review whether they can create easy fixes for them.

6. How mature is the product?

The top three CMSs — Wordpress, Joomla and Drupal — are all mature products with at least 12 years of development behind them. That history ensures a level of stability that enterprises need, something that younger open source projects may not have reached yet.

7. Does it fit with the rest of your platform?

Many CMSs are evolving into digital experience platforms, and integrating capabilities normally associated with portals or e-commerce platforms. DXPs seek to meet the needs of companies undergoing digital transformation, with the ultimate goal of providing better customer experiences. They can be single products or a suite of products that work together; both options rest on the understanding that every component of your web platform should be integrated and capable of sharing data. CMSs are particularly critical, because of the increasing need to release content on every channel as quickly as possible, which requires companies to eliminate data silos and streamline workflows.

8. Are extensions/plugins/modules actively maintained?

While an open source CMS may have great support for its out-of-the-box features, that doesn’t always extend to functionalities that you bring in with plugins or integrated applications. Often, these third-party tools can vary in their support and security. Just because an open source CMS can provide the features you need with third party applications, doesn’t mean that it will receive the same support and ongoing innovation as the core software.

9. Is a CMS really the product you need?

Because of the popularity of solutions like Wordpress, many people will recommend open source CMSs for all kinds of websites. However, there may be better open source product categories, such as portals. If you’re thinking of open source CMSs as general website building software, it would be good to research other categories of website products to ensure you’re really using the best solution.

10. How often are updates released?

Solutions that run updates often can risk your entire site going down. Updates are unavoidable, but ideally, you should be able to run the update on a test site to scan for any possible errors. If the software provider is releasing updates every other week, this can quickly become burdensome, so it’s good to gauge before you commit to a solution. Check online user reviews to see if people complain about frequent updates breaking their sites.

Open Source Is Key to Digital Innovation

Open source software offers more flexible, affordable solutions, and for a common solution like a CMS, choosing something that will help you sustain digital innovation is critical to staying competitive. A CMS should exist within a broader platform that weaves all the different digital experiences together. Even if you plan to start with a small project, the technology choices you’re making should have the potential to scale and support your company’s innovation elsewhere. Digital leaders who manage to accomplish this have greater agility and are able to act on opportunities faster, because they aren’t hunting for new solutions every time they have an idea.

In addition to these considerations, your company should still conduct a thorough evaluation of open source CMS options, and perhaps include some proprietary solutions as well. Every project is different, and taking the time to review what you really need, rather than jumping straight to an open source CMS, will benefit your project in the long run.

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