License or open-source CMS, that is the question!

I promise I will try to improve on the Shakespearean rip-off titles but as I have been asked this exact question several times over the last few months I have decided to tackle this topic in my first post of 2012.

Over the last 10 years I have worked with a wide spectrum of CMS platforms, ranging from in-house built systems to Joomla and Magento, from Open-Text to SharePoint. Which one is better? Why? And most importantly, why should you pay for a license if there are free solutions out there?

Firstly, the final decision should not be taken lightly and certainly should never be based just on the financials. The cost of choosing the wrong CMS is almost certainly going to be more expensive and painful than any license fee.

Having said that, Gartners CMS Quadrant might be ‘Magic’ but no amount of wizardry will get round some of the extortionate fees that are being charged for the CMS solutions presented in it.

So here it goes…based on my experience working with a large variety of CMS options, I am putting my stake in the ground and giving you my ┬ápreferences…

Enterprise level

If you are looking for a serious enterprise solution that can easily be integrated with an Intranet, CRM or ERP then you will want to look at a licensed solution like Sitecore. Honestly, it will all but make the coffee. It is totally flexible in terms of design, extremely user-friendly and relatively easy to set-up and configure.

Sitecore offers an impressive Direct Marketing System (at an extra charge), which is truly unique and integrates full email marketing, CRM and reporting functionality directly into your CMS. Very useful if your company runs marketing campaigns and microsites. Personalised content obviously comes as standard with Sitecore.

However, be careful if you need more than 10-12 concurrent CMS users – which, in practice, even for large corporations tends to be a lot…remember its ‘concurrent’) – as Sitecore license fees take a steep jump at that level.

Conclusion: a compelling argument for enterprise level businesses that require multilingual web sites, integration with CRM/ERP/Intranet and top level support, security and continuity (latest technology updates).

Alternatives: Episerver, SharePoint, Autonomy, Open-Text.


Although I have directed this at Small and Medium Businesses, the reality is, whether you are a large or small business, you might not need fancy integration or digital marketing systems. You might just want an honest, easy-to-use CMS that offers continuity and security, doesn’t cost more than the mortgage on your house and allows for total flexibility in terms of concurrent users. My preference would be Umbraco. It is a great CMS. Yes, multi-language sites are a little more clunky to deploy. Yes, it is open-source (honestly, does that make it less secure…no!). However, it is FREE and just as capable of managing large sites as any other CMS out there. But the reality is that, out-of-the-box, that is all it does…manage your site.

Like most well recognised open-source platforms it does have a massive community that is constantly generating new plug-ins which can be relied upon if you need to go beyond the pre-fab functionality. But integrating bespoke code does tend to add to the development costs.

Alternatives: Django, DotNetNuke, Drupal, Worpress (dont knock the latter…I have seen great sites in my time developed on WordPress).

Bespoke CMS platforms

Many agencies, including the one which I founded and owned until 1 year ago, have their own in-house built CMS platform. I would approach these with a huge helping of caution and pinch of scepticism. First of all, and lets be honest, the main advantage for an agency to have a bespoke CMS is that it ties the client in. What they dont tell you is that if you want to change agencies, you dont get to take the CMS with you…so its start from scratch I am afraid! They are also normally accompanied by hefty SLAs and maintenance contracts, because no one else can mess with the code except for the agency.

There are advantages. They tend to very much geared to specific requirements, so rather than trying to do everything and being ‘a master of none’, they should do the job better than standard CMS systems. They can be tailored more easily, because the agency has probably done it before for another client, and because, as it is their system, they are fairly comfortable at making it even more bespoke.

But honestly, I am finding it hard to conjure up a compelling argument that can’t be shot down faster than Dick Cheney’s hunting buddy.

My conclusion:

Unless they let you own the source code, the agency has a seriously credible portfolio, their financials are as solid as the rock of Gibraltar, I would stick with the the well established platforms.

The choice between open-source or licensed CMS platforms is a difficult one and really depends on your business requirements. Usually a license fee implies you will get solid ongoing support and updates, as well as a more seamless and complete platform. However, consider carefully if you need these added benefits and, if money is tight, whether the license fee is better spent on improving the content and functionality of your site.

I have chosen two .NET platforms because that has been the framework I have worked with in the past. I would love to hear (and get push-back) from the PHP evangelists out there.

I hope this has helped to demystify things a little bit and steer you in the right direction. However, remember to research the options carefully, ask for demo’s and be clear about your requirements before you make a choice so you avoid excessive costs or end up getting a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.