The popularity of open source systems such as WordPress and Joomla are increasing all the time; this is due to their cost-effectiveness, ease of use and access to help from a community which is linked to that particular brand of CMS.

For example the Joomla CMS has its own community which can offer help and advice.

The beauty of an open source CMS is easy access to the source code, low cost/free, stability, community support and the option to extend the functionality via a series of add on’s. Examples of add on’s include a blog, wiki, form, RSS feed, tags etc.

These can be bolted on as and when necessary.

There are numerous open source systems to choose from but we have included only the most popular systems to start with. These will be followed by other less well-known brands.

The most popular open source CMS are:

  • WordPress
  • Joomla
  • Drupal
  • Mambo
  • Plone
  • CMS Made Simple

But why should you choose an open source CMS instead of a propriety system such as SiteCore or Ektron?

Advantages of open source CMS

There are several advantages to using an open source system which include:

  • Low cost: the source code can be obtained for free and the support provided with this system is often cheaper than a commercial CMS.
  • Flexible and easy to customise: the easy availability of the code means that the system can be adapted to fit any business requirement.
  • Support: solutions to CMS problems can be found via a community of developers who provide advice on any issue.
  • Open platform: an open source system is designed using any open programming language such as Java, Python, PHP etc. These popular software platforms have a wealth of support and information accompanying them which is accessible to the developer and content editor alike.
  • Ability to share resources: an open source CMS enables the ability to share resources between companies and large organisations such as public sector bodies. The benefits of doing so are distributed between these companies which save time, reduce costs and boosts productivity.
  • Integration: the ability to extend and personalise an open source CMS means that it can be integrated with other software, for example XML.
  • Trial evaluation: these systems can be downloaded for evaluation purposes before implementation. This enables the developer to fully test the system and to compare it with others before making a decision. Further comments in the form of feedback can be obtained from the community support.
  • Instant error resolution: these systems by their very nature are open to the opinions of their support community. So if a problem arises a member of the community will offer a solution to the problem. Open access to the source code means that very often, the problem can be resolved by the developer.

These are all favourable outcomes for an open source CMS when compared to a commercial system. An open source CMS is considered equal to a commercial CMS and is a good, low cost option especially during a climate of tough austerity measures.

Disadvantages of open source CMS

No system is 100% perfect and this also applies to open source systems. There are a number of issues associated with these systems which include:

  • Weakness in the design of the system: these can include problems with the backend database or a poor user experience. Many open source systems have focussed upon the technical aspects such as the structure and features, e.g. templates at the expense of usability. This is a major failing as many users of these systems are often ‘novice users’ with no technical skills. They will be working from the front end only and need to be able to create and publish content with the minimum of fuss. Usability and indeed accessibility are serious issues in regard to open source systems.
  • Little or no supporting documentation: whilst there is support from the community many open source systems provide minimal documentation to accompany their system. This information is more readily available with a commercial system which is useful for editors, designers and developers.
  • No proof of longevity: there are companies who would hesitate to use an open source CMS which has not been developed, marketed and supported by an organisation. Upgrades and service packs are a feature of commercial systems but not so with open source systems which means an uncertain future for these.
  • Risk of ‘over-personalisation’: one of the strengths of an open source system: its ability to be customised can also be its downfall. There is the danger of too many people having access to the source code which can lead to constant changes, increased number of features and excessive customisation. There is a condition called ‘creeping featuritis’ in which a system becomes bloated due to an excessive use of features. These tend to sneak in over time and cause a wide range of problems, for example slowing down the system.   There is also the issue of costs in regard to training and skill development which can become prohibitively expensive over a period of time. If CMS is not the core business – and it very often isn’t for many companies then this can cause problems.


An open source CMS must be judged on its merits in the same way as a commercial system when considering which type of CMS to use.

Both of these must be evaluated to determine the benefits to the end user as well as the ROI (return on investment).

An open source CMS is not designed to replace a propriety system: however, it is a good and often cheaper alternative which may suit those companies with a restricted budget. It is also an option for micro businesses and SME’s.

What needs to be determined is the purpose of the website, the target audience and the nature of the content. For example, if a website is to be primarily used as a blog then a CMS such as WordPress is likely to be more appropriate than many other types of systems.

Plus it is a good idea to think about any plug-ins which might be needed such as those for image galleries, databases, calendars etc. Once these have been decided upon then the next step is to think about the look and feel of the site.

Whatever the reason, the needs of the individual, company or employer will influence the final decision.