What is the Difference Between an Open Source and a Commercial CMS?


It can be hard enough getting to know the names of all the content management systems (CMSs) out there (WordPress, Joomla!, and Drupal are just a few of the popular ones), but did you know that those can be categorized into two different types of CMSs? I know, as if there isn’t enough to think about! A CMS can be open source or commercial, and when selecting one for your website, it is important to determine which one will work for you based on your requirements and budget.

Open Source

The systems I mentioned above are all open source, which means the software is free and you have access to the source code (which you can alter). These systems survive because of community involvement – volunteers who check for bugs, make security updates and add new features and functionality (for an interesting point of view on volunteer CMS work, check out this article by Dries Buytaert, the founder of Drupal). Because of this, customizations happen more quickly based on the needs of the public. There is also a large base of people to fix bugs, add functionality, test and optimize the system through all different uses and backgrounds.

On the downside, if there is not a large following then CMS development can fizzle out and you will be left with an outdated system. Open source systems sometimes do not have the best documentation and support, but there can be 3rd party help available. There are quite a few open source systems available so it helps to figure out your requirements and check out the community. There are many consulting firms that will help you install, configure and customize open source CMSs. These groups often provide their own support and training.


A commercial (also known as proprietary or enterprise) CMS fundamentally is the same as an open source CMS, except that a company owns the software and you do not have access to the code. A couple of examples of more popular commercial systems include Expression Engine and SharePoint. Since there is one company managing the software, you have just one contact point and access to a dedicated support team. The system itself usually goes through an extensive quality assurance process, has a guarantee and is generally more stable.

However, without the support of a community, customizations cost extra and system functionality updates are done at the discretion of of the company. Feature requests are usually not allowed and bugs can take awhile to fix, depending on the support team in place at that company. Many commercial systems are expensive and can have annual fees; you pay for the peace of mind of having support and stability (for as long as the company is around that is!).

The Choice Is Yours

When choosing a CMS most companies focus on the features and functionality, but as you can see it is also just as important to research and decide what type of system you want. If you are looking to be more involved in the growth and new features of your CMS, then an open source system will work great. However if stability and dedicated support is what you are looking for, then a commercial CMS can be a great solution. Always research the company providing the CMS, whether it uses an open source system or a commercial one, to see what they have to offer. Armed with this new knowledge you should be able to ask the right questions and get the system and development team you need!

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