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Open Source vs. Commercial (Closed) Software Pt. 1

Mon, May 20th 2013 12:00 pm


So you have probably heard the words "Open Source" and "Commercial Software" (sometimes called Closed Source or Proprietary Software), but many people do not know what the implications of choosing one over the other may be. We decided to take a few minutes and talk about some of the key pro's, con's, costs and concerns regarding the choices... so you know what you're getting into in the short term and sometimes more importantly, the long haul.

For the purpose of this article we are going to talk about what we know best... Content Management Systems (CMS). These are the tools that give people the power to update, edit, and add content to their own websites without being web designers themselves. This is a very popular way that modern websites have been deployed over the past decade or so, growing in their adoption every year.

Closed Source

The model behind a closed source package is one in which a company has usually built or owns the system without releasing the "source code" to the public. This means that only the trained and qualified engineers at the firm can make critical changes to the software itself. 

Open Source

Products that are released under the open source model means that every bit and byte of code used to build the software is publicly available to any person in the world. That means a kid in his basement or a full size commercial firm can pick it up and claim it as their own.

The Difference in Service

There are a great many companies that utilize open source platforms (sometimes even claiming it as their own) because it costs them nothing to implement. Many web designers are drawn to open source solutions because they're free to utilize, don't require much code - if any, and they enable rapid project development. This may sound great if your marketing department is highly technical and can maintain your site in-house, but it can also become a huge problem when negative situations arise. 

Some common issues you may encounter when using an open source CMS for business, include:

  1. The person who set up the website is the only one who knows how to use the platform. If that person leaves the company or moves on, the site may lay dormant until a new solution is determined.
  2. A bug, glitch, or hacker affects the site. Your designer (in-house or otherwise) may be unable to fix the bug or vulnerability themselves and will have to wait for the open source community to offer a solution. In the meantime, you'll have to wait patiently with a broken site.
  3. It's easy to fall behind. Chances are whoever is managing the site will be busy with other tasks or client sites, which means your site might not be updated as frequently as it should be. If your site is operating on an old version of software, it may be left open to potentially disastrous hacks and attacks.
  4. There are vulnerabilities. Because open source code is open to everyone, anyone can see it and dissect it from the inside out. This includes hackers who may build an exploit for the code, and use it to penetrate your site, steal customer data, destroy your look and feel, or sometimes much worse.
  5. Open source code can be contributed to by anyone. Do you know who wrote the e-commerce "plugin" that places a widget on your home page? Many times these applications are written by freelancers, students, or amateur coders. This means that when they get a job, move on to a new project, or just decide they don't feel like updating it anymore... your e-commerce widget will be a goner, as it will become vulnerable and need to be fixed or replaced in order to keep your site secure.

Seeing as we could never discuss this topic in one article, we will be breaking it up into multiple posts. Stay tuned for the second part of this series where we will discuss some of the pros and cons of a closed source CMS and the cost - actual and perceived - of both software options.