Choosing a CMS: What Does Open-Source Mean and Why Does it Matter?

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CMS Market Share

So you want a new website and you need to choose a content management system (CMS)—a software platform that lets you easily manage and run your website. You’ve heard a lot about choosing an “open-source” CMS, but what does that even mean, and why should you care?

About 75% of websites that use a CMS are built on an open source platform such as WordPress, Joomla or Drupal. WordPress is by far the most popular open source CMS—it has 59% CMS market share, powers 27% of the entire internet, and is used by websites including The New York Times, The Walt Disney Company, and Sony. WordPress offers more than 48,000 free plugins, over 1,000 free themes, and is available in 65 languages.

Joomla, the second most popular open source CMS, is known for its combination of power, flexibility, and ease of use, and is especially well-suited for ecommerce sites and social networking.

Drupal is a more complex and powerful option that offers almost unlimited customization, but requires more advanced technical knowledge to build and maintain. Many government sites run on Drupal, Including the government of Australia, the city of Los Angeles, and The White House.

Regardless which system you choose, using an open source CMS has both positives and negatives.


Open Source CMS Pros

An open source CMS can be more cost-effective.
The actual software is free to download and use, and if you are creating a very basic website with little to no customization, using an open source CMS can be cheaper than going with a proprietary option.

Open source systems are frequently updated.
Open source CMS platforms are supported by a large community of developers, which is always working to improve the code. Bugs and security vulnerabilities are usually fixed quickly, and the CMS is always adding new features and improving functionality.

An open source CMS is portable.
If you’re hiring a third-party developer or web development agency to build your site, the main benefits of using an open source platform is the accessibility of the code. With an open source platform, you should have access to all the code if you ever need to make changes to your site or hosting environment.

Using an open source CMS lets you benefit from a large community of developers.
If you use an open source solution, you reap the benefits of a huge virtual “staff” of developers, all working to improve the product you use. Thousands of developers create new templates and plugins and provide input to make the platform work better.    


Open Source CMS Cons

Customization of an open source CMS can be costly.
While the software itself is free, making specific customizations will require a developer, so if you want your open-source site to have a very specific design or functionality that isn’t offered out-of-the-box in a template or plugin, the cost can actually be higher than using a proprietary CMS that offers the built-in functionality and features you require.

75% of hacked websites use WordPress

Open source code is often targeted by hackers.
Perhaps the biggest downside of using an open source CMS is security. More than one third of all websites use an open source CMS. That makes them attractive targets to hackers, since a single security vulnerability can be used to launch large-scale attacks. While developers are always working to close any security loopholes, the fact that the code is accessible to anyone means that developers with bad intentions have free rein to examine the code for vulnerabilities and exploit any flaws they find. According to Sucuri’s Hacked Website Trend Report, about 75% of hacked websites are using WordPress.

You need someone to monitor and install updates and provide customer support.
As mentioned above, a large and active developer community ensures that any bugs or security flaws in the open source code is quickly fixed, but your website won’t update automatically—you need to monitor available updates and install them in a timely fashion to keep your system safe and performing as smoothly as possible. In its latest report, Sucuri found that between 61% and 86% of hacked open source sites were running out-of-date versions, and therefore were not protected by current security patches.   

Finding a good open source developer can be tricky.
Yes, there are thousands of open source CMS developers. But as with anything, quality and experience vary widely, so you’ll need to put some effort into finding a developer with the skill set, experience, and work ethic you need for your project and ongoing customer support.