I hear it all the time when discussing content management systems—”Why don’t we use WordPress or Joomla or Drupal? They’re free!”  It is correct to say that software like the ones listed above can be used free of charge—they are open source (“free” as in freedom to customize using a wide variety of plug-ins and modules or creating your own code) and free for commercial use (“free” as in, no charge). Choosing a web publishing platform isn’t as easy as accepting something free of charge, however. Publishing a website with open source software is far from free.

A Print Analogy

Like any good software writer, I will now present an analogy to illustrate my point. Suppose you are excited about printing and you wish to acquire a printing press. You have excellent content, good writers, unparalleled layout artists; now you need to put ink to paper. There remain two viable choices: renting time at a local print shop or a picking up a printing press posted on Craigslist, free as long as you haul it away.

It seems like a no-brainer—choose the free press!—until you consider:

  • Where will we store the press? Will we need to rent space?
  • Who will install and set up the press for the first print run?
  • Over time, who will be responsible for regular maintenance?
  • If a mechanical problem arises or changes need to be made, who will perform them?
  • What happens if demand for our printed material exceeds the output of the press?
  • What do we do if the press experiences a catastrophic failure and is destroyed?

The decision between renting time and owning your own press is no longer a simple one.

CMSs as Presses

Bear with me and consider the CMS to be a really fancy publishing machine: you have the same great content, writers, and layout experts. The choice now is between a hosted CMS provided as a service (like renting the press in my earlier example) versus obtaining an open source CMS and hosting it somewhere (free, just haul it away!).

Here are the questions again, translated:

  • Where will we host the CMS? Will we need to buy or rent a server, or part of a server?
  • Who will install and set up the CMS for launch?
  • Over time, who will be responsible for regular upgrades of the CMS?
  • If a bug arises or we’d like to make custom changes, who will perform them?
  • What happens if our website becomes wildly popular? How will our hosting infrastructure handle it?
  • What do we do in the event of data loss?

The Cost of Open Source

If you plan to use an open source CMS on your own, you need to have ready answers to all of these questions. Generally, the answers to the above questions translate into costs.

Most companies outside of the web industry do not have staff capable of fully managing an open source publishing platform and do not plan to hire or train them. Companies commonly try to fill this gap in different ways:

Contractors are often hired for the initial implementation. A quality contractor familiar with the technology can help an organization get up and running quickly during the initial setup and deployment phase. The contractor can even code custom modules or modify the source code to meet a particularly unique customer requirement. However, even the best contractors eventually stop contracting.  Long-term contractor relationships can turn costly if constant maintenance is required, and availability is an issue—what if the contractor who knows your system is unavailable? What happens when you end the relationship with your contractor and the institutional memory of how the website works disappears?

Interns are often tapped because they’re young, cheap, and more knowledgeable about the technology than anyone else in the company. This does not mean it’s a genius plan to turn your interns loose implementing the technology responsible for maintaining your online presence. Would a newspaper put the fate of its presses in the hands of well-meaning but inexperienced amateurs? Of course not. But, for some reason, when it comes to technology companies seem more likely to hand mission-critical tasks to interns.

Corporate IT is, unfortunately, often saddled with the task of maintaining a variety of disparate, neglected web publishing systems that they cannot fully support. It’s a frustrating scenario both for users and for the staff supporting them. Most IT departments are set up to support an office full of computers, not a cluster full of website nodes. This reality is changing—as more business moves to the web, many companies prefer to keep core business in-house—but the change is slow.

Renting Instead of Owning

Now consider a hosted CMS offered as software-as-a-service (SaaS). You pay a (typically flat) monthly subscription fee to use the service. The tools used to build your website are upgraded and maintained for you. The servers, backups, and other maintenance are part of your fee—it’s the service company’s problem. You don’t need to hire anyone to deal with the publishing system (though you may find you need people to use it). You have an expert team familiar with the tools you’re using (the service company), ready to assist you. A hosted, SaaS CMS is an attractive option when contrasted against the hidden requirements of publishing using a free, open source software tool.

A SaaS CMS does have disadvantages over open source. You are now dependent on a business relationship with another company. You do not have access to the source code, so you cannot make changes using internal programming expertise—they must go through the service company. If you decide to part ways with your service provider, it will cost money to transition. However, the savings and simplicity of a service offering outweigh these concerns for most organizations.

The types of questions you may want to ask a software partner include:

  • What happens if your company, or your software, goes away?
  • How often will I receive upgrades to your software as part of my service agreement?
  • What kind of user support is offered?
  • How mature is your software platform (how many years has it been in existence)? What version number are you on?
  • How do you evaluate and decide on new features? What input, if any, would I have in influencing new features?
  • If a bug arises or we’d like to make custom changes, who will perform them?
  • What happens if our website becomes wildly popular? How will your hosting infrastructure handle it?
  • What do we do in the event of data loss?

Summary

You should now be able to critically examine open source and SaaS CMS offerings in terms of their upfront and long-term, hidden costs. Most importantly, I hope I have dispelled the notion that open source CMSs are “free” and therefore offer cost savings over a subscription-based CMS service—you need to dig into the details and examine your company’s specific resources and goals.

Full disclosure: Clockwork, of course, offers a SaaS CMS (the Active Media Manager). We also handle implementations of Drupal, WordPress, Joomla and countless other content management systems (both proprietary and open source). Our goal in writing this post is not to imply that our software—or the SaaS model—is right for every company, but rather to encourage people to think critically about what will best suit the long-term needs of their organization. In other words, don’t be seduced by the word “free.”