Proprietary vs Open-Source Content Management Solutions

I have a lot of mixed opinions about content management systems, and suffice it to say that there is no one, single solution that will work for every situation.  However, I do feel that it makes zero sense to develop sites without one; the technology has come too far along to have a static website.

Content management is a must for building a successful web presence for a variety of reasons. If your prospective design firm isn’t talking to you about a CMS, then they may not really understand what it takes to bring about true online success.  Choosing a firm that understands how to make you successful is important, and so is understanding how a CMS factors into the online mix.


In order to make the distinction between the two, I’ll define a proprietary CMS as one that is built from the ground-up by a particular development/design shop. The cost for these systems is likely figured into the overall cost of the web project.

Open Source content management solutions are developed through the collaboration of many individual developers who contribute to code to the project in hopes of building a better mousetrap, so to speak. Open source software typically has no cost.

Pros and Cons

There are many reasons for one system or another depending on the needs and the goal, but here are some points to consider:

What does the site need to do?

Seems pretty straightforward, but this needs to be drilled down to a granular level right off the bat. If the main goal of managing the content on your site is to allow someone in your organization to update the homepage copy and image gallery every quarter, then that is very different from needing a site that allows users to register and post their own content, or includes e-commerce capability.

The more complexity that your site most have, the less likely that a proprietary CMS will be a good fit for you, for the simple fact that in a proprietary system, that functionality will likely have to be developed from scratch.  Open source platforms like Joomla and WordPress have thousands of already completed plugins and components that can be installed, which saves a tremendous amount of development effort. Odds are, someone has already thought, “I would really it if my WordPress site also did…” and a component was developed for that specific reason. The open source community, being the nice folks they are, would then post that for the rest of the world to use. Pretty sweet.

Who is going to be maintaining the site?

How savvy is this person, and how often will they be making these changes? Often times, the motivation for building a proprietary CMS is that the end-user if considered more than the functionality.  Meaning that a proprietary CMS may not do as much, but it can do specific tasks much easier than something like Joomla. We have colleagues who have gone the proprietary route, and their system is so simple that a lobotomized monkey could use it. That’s awesome if you have a really non-technical person who is going to be maintaining the site, and the site will really serve as an information-only web presence. That is definite advantage for the proprietary systems. Open source systems vary in user friendliness. WordPress is idiot-proof, but Joomla and Drupal are software; and like most software, you would have to be shown how to use it initially.

What are the cost differences?

The differences in cost can range widely, so that’s a tough one to answer.  Due to the decreased functionality of proprietary systems, and the fact that the people who built it know the thing inside and out – you can often land a custom website with a proprietary CMS for relatively low investment.

That’s not to say that you can’t find someone to slap a Joomla site together for you on the cheap either. There are some questionable firms out there who are offering $500 Joomla sites with a pre-made template. The flip side of that is that we’ve worked on open source CMS projects that reached into the $50k range.

A better question is: how much will it cost you to start over?  Or, how much are you willing to pay to have your site worked on down the road?

What are you going to do in the future if…

Say you have a falling out with your development team for whatever reason, what would you do? Obviously, you need to find someone else who can work on your site. The issue with a proprietary CMS is that it is proprietary and most firms who offer these solutions do not really “sell” you the website in the traditional sense.  You own your site and it will be online, as long as you continue your relationship with that firm. But if you ever decide that you want to move your site to a different provider or have another team work on it, you may find that you’re out of luck.

I have worked with several clients over the years who were badly burned by this policy. And it may not really even be the proprietary developer’s fault. Simply put: you probably cannot move your site to another server and have it work. These sites need special libraries on the server, so moving the site to a cheaper hosting provider, for example, is impossible. That’s another thing to consider, too: hosting cost.  Hosting your proprietary site with the developer is likely to be more expensive. They like to call this “hosting & maintenance” but there is very little you can do about it, since you must host with them.

If you want to change hosts and you’ve gone the open source route – then no worries!  Host wherever you want, any decent hosting provider in the world will be able to accommodate you. If you need to have someone else work on your site for whatever reason, then you’re fine. There are thousands of people/companies that can work with open source CMS platforms. For that reason, you can truly “own” your website, and not just lease it from the original developer.


The first thing we try to nail down with any client is: what is the goal. I think that’s a really good place to start when considering a content management solution. Know what you need right now and what you don’t, but try to think about the future, too.  If you might start selling online in 12 months, that should factor into your criteria.  If you’re never going to need any more than an online brochure, then that will certain help you know which direction you should go.