Building a New Website? Choosing Between an Open Source CMS or a Proprietary CMS

Written by Brian Larson on July 27, 2017


If you’re deciding on a Content Management System (CMS) for your new website, it’s understandable to feel overwhelmed—there are hundreds of options out there. To narrow your search, first consider the choice between proprietary and open source.

Choosing the right CMS for a new website is a bit like choosing between buying and leasing a car. There’s open source, which is software that’s free to use without licensing fees, though there are costs associated with designing and building the site. And then there’s proprietary, which often requires monthly, annual, or an up-front licensing cost and sometimes a need to pay for ongoing maintenance.

If you decide to choose a proprietary web CMS, that’s a little bit like leasing a car—if you want anything done under the hood you’re going to have to go back to the folks who leased you the car in the first place. They own the car; you just get to drive it. For the sake of this example, this could problematic if the dealership closes its doors without warning and they take your car with them. Or, if you don’t like the mechanics at the dealership and want to work with someone else, you’re going to need to pay for an entirely new vehicle. So it goes with proprietary content management systems. If you don’t like how it runs on the backend or it has become outdated and inflexible on the frontend, you’ll need to rebuild your website from the ground up elsewhere.

Open source is more like owning the car. You have the full freedom to choose which garage to take it to or, if you’re engine savvy yourself, you can tinker with anything you want under the hood (whether that’s a good idea or not is a different debate altogether). It’s the same with with open source code. You hire an agency to build your site, but have the freedom to take the site in-house or to a different vendor for maintenance, functionality updates and even future redesigns.

Scenarios where an open-source CMS may be the best choice:

Open source CMSs offer the most long-term management flexibility. Sites built by an agency can be managed by the same agency or later managed in-house or by other third-party developers with ease. Contrary to popular belief, even though the source code is free to use, sites built with an open source CMS can scale to support a massive amount of content. For example, The New York Times runs on WordPress. Both the State of Colorado and the University of Minnesota run sites on the very popular open source CMS, Drupal. Our shortlist of open source CMSs includes WordPress, Drupal, ProcessWire and MODX.

Scenarios where a proprietary CMS may be the best choice:

Though it may offer less flexibility in terms of ownership, there are certainly instances where it makes the most sense to use a proprietary system. If you’re running a large enterprise site which has many brands and subsites then a proprietary enterprise CMS may be the smartest route, but not always. Consider the State of Colorado and the University of Minnesota above. If the site has complex business needs that need to be integrated with ERP software then proprietary should be considered before open source.

Why we recommend open source CMS for most sites:

Open source CMSs often provide the most flexibility in terms of actually owning your website (design, code, database and all) and they don’t tie you to one vendor. Also, the base software itself is often 100% free to use with no recurring costs. At SCG we primarily recommend and use WordPress for our full-custom client sites due to its flexibility and security (contrary to popular misconceptions, WordPress is a very secure platform). WordPress can also be used in conjunction with a proprietary system which can provide the best of both options. We do have experience with other open source CMSs as well. If you’re thinking about building a new website, we’d be happy to help. Send us a note and we can talk about a web CMS that best fits your business’ needs.