Choosing open source for your business website

We've recently advised several small businesses and startups on recommended CMS products for website hosting. We'd like to share some of our thoughts with you in this blog entry.

A web CMS, or Content Management System, is simply a software application which allows you to easily create and manage a website. Before the widespread adoption of CMS software, folks had to rely on the expertise of web developers fluent in writing the code needed to create bespoke websites from the ground up. This often involved expensive web design software, and the whole process created a pain point for businesses in that any changes to the site (even simple ones) required the help of a developer.

Modern CMS software radically simplifies the process of adding content to a website, to the point that no coding knowledge at all is needed to build a complete online presence. CMS software itself typically runs in a web browser window, so there is no expensive design software needed. The CMS becomes the central point from which all aspects of the website are managed.

There's no shortage of web CMS products out there for building a business website, with many offering nominally attractive feature sets and pricing. However, business owners looking to establish a web presence should approach with caution any CMS which is delivered solely as an online subscription-based service, and which cannot also be hosted on a system of the business' own choosing. Let's look in more detail at the reasons for this.

Wix.com and Weebly are two examples of popular, online-only CMS services. Both products have a marketing focus on low cost (starting from free), ease-of-use, a wide range of design themes, and the ability to build a website without needing to know any web code. The key risk however is that the CMS software can only be accessed via the respective vendors that make these products. Once you've created your website using Wix.com or Weebly, you effectively have no freedom of choice in alternate hosting providers. If you wanted to easily migrate your website from Wix.com to a local web hosting company to take advantage of lower fees, better support, or fine-grained customisation, this is impossible. Your business is effectively locked-in to the vendor's CMS. (Squarespace is another online-only CMS service.)

Smaller web design agencies (including those based in New Zealand) may also produce proprietary, online-only CMS products, with features similar to the more well-known names. It's not uncommon to find professional-looking websites built with such systems, but the same caveats apply: without the freedom to host your website using an alternative company, you are again effectively locked-in to the vendor's CMS. And if that vendor raises the pricing, lowers the support quality, or goes out of business, your company is left facing a raft of headaches – and a potentially huge bill.

Now let's see how these proprietary and online-only CMS products stack up against those based on open source technology. Some of the most well-known names in the open source CMS category include Drupal (which runs the Apertura Designs website), Joomla, and WordPress. For this blog entry we'll focus on WordPress.

WordPress.org and WordPress.com

WordPress in fact comprises both a software application and an online service. Both are produced by Automattic – the parent company of WordPress. Let's look at the differences between the two.

WordPress.org is the open source CMS software product that enables you to easily create and manage a website. The software can be downloaded and installed at no cost, to run for example on a personal computer. You might want to do this to try out some ideas for a brand-new website in a completely private environment. More commonly, the software is installed and managed by a third-party company to host your public website for you. There are thousands of such web hosting companies all over the world that offer WordPress software for use in exactly this way.

By building your website on WordPress software, you are not constrained by a single vendor (for example Wix.com or Weebly). Your business can take advantage of thousands of alternative hosting companies, all competing for the best price and service for their customers. If costs at your hosting company rise and customer service starts to suffer (or worst-case scenario they go out of business altogether), you can migrate the entire website to a new company offering WordPress hosting, with minimal disruption, expense, and downtime. And by virtue of WordPress being open source, you are guaranteed the ability to run and customise the software yourself without restriction.

WordPress.com is the online service provided by Automattic that hosts the WordPress software for you. In this regard it is very similar to the many other companies offering WordPress hosting. WordPress.com websites can be set up instantly, without any technical know-how, and the base cost is free. By default, free WordPress.com websites will have the web address format "mywebsite.wordpress.com", but if you have registered a domain name for your business this can be applied to your WordPress.com website via a low-cost upgrade. There are many other paid upgrades available for WordPress.com websites, all for very reasonable prices.

The attractive features of proprietary CMS products apply to WordPress.com as well. There are many high-quality themes to choose from, and several with a specific business look and feel. The editing system is super-easy to use, and everything from adding basic content to creating a slick photo gallery can be done without needing a web developer or knowledge of any web code. The powerful WordPress.com editing tools combined with the wide variety of themes do all the work for you.

If you have already registered a domain name, then bringing up a website on WordPress.com (combined with some key upgrades) can be performed in a matter of hours – while remaining remarkably affordable. Hosting your business website on WordPress.com is a fantastic way to quickly establish your online presence, with a full range of professional-quality tools to manage your content. You can have peace of mind knowing that in future migrating the entire website to another hosting provider is a straightforward affair, with none of the lock-in afflicting customers of online-only CMS services. Automattic even offer a guided transfer service where they will perform the necessary work to migrate your WordPress.com-hosted site to an alternative hosting provider of your choice.

We've focused on WordPress for this blog post, but the benefits we've covered are shared by other open source CMS products. For example, Drupal similarly can be freely installed on a personal computer for private testing, or installed by numerous third-party companies for public website hosting, or hosted by the company that produces the Drupal software itself via the Drupal Gardens service (analogous to WordPress.com).

When looking at a CMS to build a website, business owners should look carefully for the presence of the freedoms afforded by open source technology. Open source CMS products offer features and ease-of-use matching or exceeding that of their proprietary counterparts, and truly offer businesses the best of all worlds.

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