Open Source is Not the Enemy

by on November 3, 2009 · 14 comments

My colleague Jerry Brito and I are attending the annual meeting of the State Policy Network in Asheville, NC.  In the process, we’ve heard a lot of things said about open-source software that we don’t agree with, and some things that are just plain wrong.

The reasons for this are obvious.  There are a lot of folks who have an interest in talking down open-source CMS solutions—namely because they sell proprietary, closed-source systems.  But, there are non-interested parties out there who have given rave reviews to open-source solutions.  For example, Drupal and WordPress have consistently won CNET’s Webware Awards. The White House now runs on Drupal, the New York Times runs its blogs on WordPress, and sites that we have built, including those for CEI, the Mercatus Center, America’s Future Foundation, Stimulus Watch, and OpenRegs.com, are built using open source tools, and they have been very successful. Bottom line, one can’t say that using open-source software is never the answer.

So how do you decide what to use? What you have to consider are the relative merits of each approach.  Some web projects may be so unique that you’ll want to have a developer build a custom solution for you. You might also find a proprietary solutions that fits your needs perfectly. However, most public policy groups have very similar needs—publishing and promoting papers and press releases, creating profiles of their experts, highlighting past and future events, etc. For these cases, it’s very likely that there is an open-source solution available at a no cost, and with a large pool of independent developers who can implement it for you. And it’s certainly the case that open-source solutions can be infinitely customized to meet unique needs.

The main difference we want to point out, however, is that when you choose a proprietary solution, you’re not just tied to that solution, but to a vendor as well. Look carefully at their contracts, it will be quite clear that they own the software that runs your website. If you need to change or add functionality to your site, you need to go to that particular vendor. With an open-source solution, there are hundreds of developers you can turn to. You can keep your site exactly as it is, and simply change your contractor. Your platform is not tied to any vendor.

In the event you wanted to move to a new platform, open-source systems have the advantage that they operate with standard technologies with which all developers are familiar, making it very easy for a developer to transfer your content to a new platform. To move from a proprietary platform means your new developer has a steep learning curve ahead of him.

A great place to start thinking about open-source CMS solutions is the annual Open Source CMS Market Share report released by Water & Stone, a PR firm that analyzes the state of the open-source community.  It outlines what various open-source solutions can do, the size of their community, the number of sites running the CMS and various other facets of the software.  For example, the report shows that thousands of sites have been deployed using Drupal and WordPress.  These are thousands of users putting these platforms to the test and as a result improving them.  How many thousands of sites are deployed using your proprietary vendor’s solution?

These thousands of users create countless add-ons and plugins that can alter or expand the core functionality of the basic CMS.  This means that when new technologies or services become popular—think Facebook or Twitter—add-ons are quickly available for expanding the functionality of your site.  Add-ons for WordPress even make it possible to turn turn a WordPress site into a podcasting platform, bulletin board, research database, or even a social networking site.  These are just a handful of examples of the literally thousands of similar easy-to-implement add-ons for open-source platforms.  Why reinvent the wheel when these solutions are available for free?

Certainly open-source isn’t always the right choice—proprietary solutions have their applications—but when considering relationships with vendors, customization, future flexibility, and the incredible cost savings, open-source is likely the best solution for most public policy groups.

If you’d like to learn more about open-source solutions and how they might be used for your public policy group, feel free email me at cord.blomquist@gmail.com.

  • http://angrydictator.com PJ Doland

    We actually develop sites for clients using both open source content management systems and custom proprietary systems.

    Systems like Drupal, Joomla, and WordPress are good options when a client needs something that doesn't conflict with the basic assumptions made by the software's development community (who are catering to a general user base). If a client is willing to stay within the lines, then they can usually get 95% of what they want or need for 40% of the comparative cost. This is the preferred way of doing things whenever it will help realize the basic objectives of the project.

    Sometimes, however, clients have a very particular way they need things maintained. It could be because of a need to manage a large number of idiosyncratic data-relationships. It could be the result of a very specialized internal workflow. Sometimes it's just bullheadedness on the part of an executive decisionmaker. In these situations, it's often better to go the custom route. Trying to use an open source CMS when it's not appropriate can be not only very messy, but much more expensive to maintain than a well-built custom solution.

    To make sure you don't get burned, find a vendor who is both familiar with open source systems and able to identify when they are and are not appropriate. To put it another way: vendors who only work with open source content management systems tend to see every problem as a nail; vendors who never use them tend to see you as an easy mark.

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  • http://www.fundootemplates.com/ cms solutions

    Yes i agree that open source is not the answer for software.We can develop a website with all the techinical functionalities by using some language but it is not possible with the tool.

  • MikeRT

    The vendors need the government space because it is so uncritical of them and so driven by CYA politics over efficiency. It's an enormous cash cow for them in a way that is proportionally superior to private business because the will to fight for the best bang for the buck isn't usually there.

    CMS products are just a drop in the bucket. What we really need is for PostgreSQL or EnterpriseDB to very aggressively attack Oracle's position in the government market. Oracle is so expensive, and so overused that it would save tax payers a significantly greater amount of money.

  • http://www.cordblomquist.com cordblomquist

    You should see my recent comments to Tim Lee, reposted here http://timothyblee.com/?p=1432 as a post with his comments, that illustrate why I believe there is a bias against free software specifically in the free market non-profit community. The advocates of free software often use highly charged language and try to turn an engineering question into a political one. That politicizing has made a lot of folks suspicious of open source, something that has set advocates of freedom behind because, as you say, money has been wasted on closed-source technologies that don't stack up to open software.

  • MikeRT

    The vendors need the government space because it is so uncritical of them and so driven by CYA politics over efficiency. It's an enormous cash cow for them in a way that is proportionally superior to private business because the will to fight for the best bang for the buck isn't usually there.

    CMS products are just a drop in the bucket. What we really need is for PostgreSQL or EnterpriseDB to very aggressively attack Oracle's position in the government market. Oracle is so expensive, and so overused that it would save tax payers a significantly greater amount of money.

  • http://www.cordblomquist.com cordblomquist

    You should see my recent comments to Tim Lee, reposted here http://timothyblee.com/?p=1432 as a post with his comments, that illustrate why I believe there is a bias against free software specifically in the free market non-profit community. The advocates of free software often use highly charged language and try to turn an engineering question into a political one. That politicizing has made a lot of folks suspicious of open source, something that has set advocates of freedom behind because, as you say, money has been wasted on closed-source technologies that don't stack up to open software.

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