Benefits of SaaS vs. Open-Source Content Management Systems
Open-source software has made an enormous impact on the web. From operating systems to database software, open-source software has been a driving force behind the growth of the web.
Despite all the benefits of open-source software, however, its advocates often underestimate its costs and fail to recognize the value of alternatives. For many applications, SaaS solutions—which typically are built upon an open-source foundation but include a substantial layer of proprietary software—better meet users’ needs.
Open-source software is at its best when it is in the hands of a technologist who can follow its twists and turns, keep up with new versions, deal with compatibility issues, look at source code as documentation, and engage in technical discussions on forums when help is needed.
Benefits of SaaS
SaaS solutions shine when the user is focused on business or design goals, rather than technology. It is especially beneficial when the software needs to be used by multiple people, making it more compelling for it to be hosted in the cloud and delivered as a service.
The most dramatic success of SaaS is in the customer relationship management (CRM) field. Although open-source and commercial software is still used by some companies, Salesforce.com has transformed this market and made SaaS solutions the dominant approach.
Other areas where SaaS has had a big impact are in project management tools, such as Basecamp; document sharing, such as Google Docs; email marketing, such as MailChimp; and online stores, such as Shopify.
CMS Transition Lags
Ironically, one area in which adoption of SaaS solutions lags is in the construction and delivery of websites. Open-source software dominates content management systems, with WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla! powering the majority of sites today.
Often, designers and site owners (subject-matter experts) are the ones building sites. They are best served by solutions that allow them to focus on the value they want to add, and that minimize the amount of technical complexity and turmoil while providing all of the capabilities they need.
All too often, designers and site owners jump on the open-source bandwagon because it has become the expected path when building a website, even though other solutions may serve their needs better. In particular, SaaS (hosted) content management systems offer a number of compelling benefits.
Ease of Setup
There are still designers building static sites because they don’t believe that a CMS is affordable for a small site. When using an open-source CMS, this is often the case. When you add in the overhead of setting up a CMS, customizing it for a particular site, and maintaining the software, the free open-source system can be quite expensive.
With a hosted CMS, a site can be created in a matter of minutes. There may be a monthly cost that is a little higher than for cheap hosting of an open-source CMS, but when you consider the time saved, it is often a less-expensive path. With the right hosted CMS at their fingertips, a designer can give every site owner the ability to maintain their own site. When site owners are empowered to edit their own content, their sites are kept more up-to-date, and are therefore more valuable for the site’s owner and its visitors.
Integrated, Managed Solution
To create a site using an open-source CMS, typically the designer or developer must assemble a set of components that includes the core CMS and an assortment of plug-ins. While the diversity of plug-ins available is enticing, there is a dark side to this approach. Often, compatibility issues arise, especially when there is a new release of the core CMS. Plug-ins are sometimes not updated promptly, or ever, and often have no support.
There’s also a variety of complex components beyond the CMS that are part of an effective site delivery solution: the underlying web server and operating system, caching system, load balancer, mailer, backup system, and monitoring software. Assembling and maintaining a quality set of components is a non-trivial task, and one that is beyond the interests and skills of many site builders. Low-cost hosting providers typically do a mediocre job, at best.
With a hosted CMS, the supplier provides a complete, integrated solution. They’re responsible for delivering the entire hosting environment, and for keeping all the software updated with the latest versions and patches. They also provide a complete, integrated experience for the site builder; there’s no more cobbling together pieces from a variety of sources and hoping they will all work together—and keep working when the core software is updated.
Keeping sites from getting hacked is a big issue with open-source content management systems. There is nothing inherently insecure in open source software. However, consider that most open-source content management systems:
- Are written in PHP
- Mix code from the core, plug-ins, and the site’s pages
- Present a big target, and
- Are typically hosted in low-end, shared hosting environments
This combination of factors creates a vulnerable situation in which lots of sites get hacked.
In a well-designed hosted CMS, security is much better. All back-end code is under the control of one company, and the servers are managed by experts who have control over the entire server environment. And should something untoward happen, it is the responsibility of the provider of the hosted CMS to make it right.
The availability of responsive support is another differentiating factor for hosted systems. Open-source software typically has a huge community of users, so one can usually get answers to questions by posting to forums. However, the authors of the software often do not participate in these forums, and they aren’t getting paid to answer questions. Furthermore, answers are frequently provided by people who are less than experts, and may or may not provide the best guidance.
A good provider of a hosted content management system will provide expert, responsive support that keeps site builders working efficiently and reduces frustrations and wrong turns.
Barriers to Adoption
Given all these benefits, why has adoption of hosted solutions been relatively slow in the CMS domain?
A big factor is the perception that open-source software, combined with low-cost hosting, is less expensive. This is true only if you don’t assign any value to the time of the people building and maintaining the system. Open source is free, like a free puppy. The care and feeding is typically quite expensive, especially when things go wrong.
Another issue is the fact that most hosted content management systems, such as WordPress.com, LightCMS, and SquareSpace are limited in the complexity of what you can build. They don’t support custom database structures, and they don’t scale well to sites with large amounts of content.
This is changing, however, with the introduction of more sophisticated hosted CMS services, such as Webvanta. Systems such as these are fully capable of addressing the majority of applications to which open-source content management systems are put.
Cooked vs. Raw
In many cases, an open-source CMS is a great solution. But in others, a hosted CMS will enable designers and site owners to create better sites more quickly, at a lower cost, and with less grief.
Open-source software is relatively raw technology, and it is often best used by technologists. Designers and content creators are usually most effective if they have someone else managing the technology, building upon a foundation of open-source software but with a supported, managed layer on top of it.