Open versus Proprietary: Choosing the Right Content Management System

Whether you’re the IT professional for an established non-profit or huge multinational, a budding blogger or a mom-and-pop etail startup, your website is the face you put forth to the world. And as such, it’s vital that certain elements of your site have an ease-of-use available to you: for the ability to make quick changes to content and page designs; to tweak donation or payment platforms; to move your site to another platform should you choose; and so on.

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Enter the Content Management System (CMS), the standard in website design protocol that allows site owners and managers the ability to update often and easily. And in recent years, CMSs have been divided into two main categories—the “Open Source” and “Proprietary: systems—because, as is so true on the Internet of today, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. And indeed, the distinctions between the two platforms are important to know before embarking on a website design initiative.

To begin, consider whether you’re prepared to accept a free CMS or one that requires a fee. For open-source options, perhaps the most well known operating today is WordPress, free for its basic version and still very affordable if you choose to upgrade features. Cost aside, open-source CMSs also have lots of other attractive features: they’re backed by large communities of users, so if you’re having a problem odds are many people have already come up with a quick-fix solution; popular open-source CMSs such as Joomla! and Drupal allow you access to loads of professionals who can help you with design if you’re not up to the task; the platforms often have 24/7 tech support; the source codes are available to one and all; and all can be hosted nearly anywhere. Additionally, because of their popularity, it’s likely they’ll be around for some time, meaning you won’t get left out in the cold as others have when their platform suddenly went belly up.

However, there are some downsides to an open-source CMS: the design templates can only be customized so much unless you’re a professional and, depending on which open-source CMS you use, it may be difficult to move it from one developer to another if you’ve made extensive customizations and added specific modules.

Proprietary CMSs, on the other hand, do have benefits, but mostly for a very specific type of user: those whose online presence is how they do business, but they just need for the focus to be on the content and not on the technology behind it (essentially, your needs for functionality are met by the software program); they don’t require extensive custom development; they want to be able to manipulate their content only and not other aspects of the site’s function; they don’t want to deal with updates and bug and security fixes (which are common with open-source CMS); and they want a full-service hosting plan where they can rely on someone else to deal with any technical hang ups.

Key issues with proprietary CMSs are very important to note: design firms come and go, and if the company folds you could be left helpless, stuck with a platform you can’t understand or manipulate; you need to ensure you have ownership and access to the content and design, and that any contract you sign allows you to move the site if you wish; know that there are less options for enhancements or customizations; the learning curve for a proprietary system may be difficult, and if you deal with an unscrupulous designer or firm you may not get the proper education on making changes to your site; and, depending on who developed the proprietary CMS, it may or may not be up to speed with the latest in social networking or with the new algorithms that allow your site to be properly indexed and receive decent rankings on searches from companies such as Google.

In short, open-source CMSs are a great choice for just about anyone looking to launch or relaunch their website: there’s more than enough customizations for the average user, lots of community support, you’ll have complete and unfettered ownership of your content and the systems are easy to learn. Proprietary systems are solid options for those site owners looking for a more “hands off” relationship, but only if you engage a reputable designer or firm and thoroughly understand and agree to contract stipulations.

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