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CMS Primer: Open Source vs. Commercial

With a swirl of options, how does a publisher choose the best system?



By Vanessa Voltolina
09/14/2009

Now more than ever, publishers are finding that good content reigns supreme. Therefore, it only makes sense that the content management systems in charge of safekeeping and conveying these assets are of critical importance. But with a swirl of commercial staples and innovative open source systems (like Drupal, Joomla!, Alfresco and eZPublish) growing in popularity, how does a publisher looking to overhaul choose the best system?

As with everything, the decision to use commercial versus open source platforms have pros and cons. Sean Fulton, vice president of GCN Publishing, finds a few considerations—like choosing a vendor (open source or commercial) that fits your business, and deciding whether to outsource the process or keep it in-house—to be key. Other factors may include the size of the publisher, available funds, and time and available publisher resources.

Alisa Cromer, founder of newmediahub.com, a site designed to help publishers build digital companies, uses the open source platform WordPress. Currently, she’s focusing on the site’s directory using e-directory, which “has a ton of functionality built-in” and is customizable, she said.

When Hanley Wood decided to integrate a new CMS, they began by identifying major business and technical stakeholders and talked to them about functional needs and opportunities to improve content production. The group created a high-level Requirements Specification document and “CMS Roadmap” based on requirements such as reducing time to market, SEO tools and reducing technical dependency.

Using this Roadmap, Hanley Wood narrowed the field to eight, then four, then invited two finalists in for a side-by-side comparison. The publisher ultimately chose commercial product SDL-Tridion, which is used by sites such as Builderonline.com and Remodelingmagazine.com. “The key was taking a good hard look at the traditional and online editorial process integration and improvement before moving to a new CMS system,” CIO Jeff Craig told FOLIO: in March. “It’s key to get those aspects of the overall production environment ready to adapt to a new and integrated way of creating content.”

Here, a few considerations when looking at a CMS overhaul:

Functionality

Due to the sheer number of people currently working on popular open source Web CMS projects, innovation tends to happen more rapidly than commercial systems. This innovation is oftentimes a result of project-specific development as opposed to a product management lifecycle.

“Contributors to an open-source Web CMS project will invent a new plugin or enhance an existing one based upon the needs of a customer’s project, then the contributor will put that development back into the body of work for others to use," said Joe Bachana, president and founder of Web firm DPCI. Large commercial vendors generally offer suites of products such as document management, digital asset management, search, workflow management and multi-channel publishing that integrate with Web CMS. Smaller vendors tend to form strategic alliances with vendors of these kinds of solutions.

Maintenance

Commercial vendors take great pains to test their platforms before delivering them precisely because of past criticism for not doing so and have full departments with well-defined protocols for regression testing and quality assuring the entire platform. While this is generally not found in the open-source world, some of the OS projects are emulating this behavior through interesting procedures that approach a QA department.

"Most proprietary options offer on demand support, a live help desk and well-defined operational protocols," said Bachana. Commercial vendors offer standard training and certification programs to help customers on-board resources with a product. Also, commercial vendors have fully thought-out knowledge base portals for self-help on their Web CMS products. Few of the open source projects have such professional knowledge bases, although this is changing rapidly.

Both eZSystems' eZ Publish and Alfresco are projects that emulate the commercial approach. Both have select programs without a huge number of resources implementing these products. Popular open source solution Drupal never had support in the past, but now Drupal’s founder, Dries Buytaert, has started Acquia, which offers commercial support for Drupal.

Longevity

“There are dozens of Web CMS packages in the open source space,” said Bachana. “And the truth is, while many are touted to be the best one, many come and go.” Bachana cited open source CMS products, like KRANG, a Primedia-driven open-source project considered the answer for publishers just six or seven years ago, to now be obsolete. If open source solutions don’t develop a large following of developers, they tend to languish; Joomla!, Drupal and WordPress, for instance, have a huge following, and therefore more potential for long term success.

Cost

For small magazine publishers, there's not much of a contest when it comes to pricing systems. Most, but not all, open source options are free; software license costs and implementation costs for commercial solutions can total two to three times that of an open source solution.

"One of the misconceptions about open source is that it's a 'free lunch,'" said Fulton. "It really isn't. When you pay a vendor for a commercial CMS product, your license fee typically pays for an extensive QA process, documentation, and support. When you choose an open source solution, you will be paying whoever implements it to provide those services for you. The difference is that with an open source solution, you or your vendor can modify the product to your specific needs. The upside to that is flexibility. But there is still a cost—if you want the same sort of reliability that you get from a commercial product."

Because resources in commercial space are scarce, the pool of implementers tends to be small and therefore rates can be higher. While traditionally opting for commercial solutions, many larger publishers have begun to get on the open source bandwagon, including Fast Company (Drupal), Discover (Plone) and Las Vegas Sports (Joomla!).

Commercial licensing costs are normally in the ballpark of open source software costs, with implementation costs about equal. Of course, the notion of where a publisher will find support after implementation is another issue to be grappled with—which is where commercial software assurance can come into play. "There is a mercenary culture in open source space," said Bachana. "Many developers are brilliant, but tend to move from project to project, and may not be there to support publishers or set up enhancements. Therefore, there's a pressure on smaller publishers to take the initiative with internal resources or by relying on a reputable integration shop to support them along the way.”

By Vanessa Voltolina
09/14/2009







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