OPEN SOURCE: IS IT RIGHT FOR YOU? [EContent]
(EContent Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) They say the best things in life are free: love, health, happiness- and maybe even software.
Indeed, completely gratis open source software (OSS) with no licensing strings attached is all the rage today, as evidenced by the popularity and proliferation of OSS products currently in use, including the Apache HTTP Server, Linux, Android operating systems, internet browser Mozilla Firefox, and ecommerce platform osCommerce.
In fact, a 2011 survey by Gartner, Inc. revealed that more than half of organizations polled have adopted OSS solutions as part of their IT strategies. Flexibility, shorter development times, increased innovation, and faster procurement processes were listed as reasons for adopting OSS solutions by nearly 1 out of 3 respondents.
These reasons, coupled with lower costs, are why open source content management systems (OSCMSs) such as Drupal, WordPress, and Joomla are more widely used by digital publishers and electronic content providers nowadays. Many companies have jumped ship from proprietary systems such as those offered by Oracle, Adobe, Documentum, and OpenText to an OSCMS solution, with the potential to save hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process, says Felipe Rubim, chief technology architect for Ci&T, a King of Prussia, Pa.-based web and mobile application services and software product engineering company.
THE ALLURE OF OSS TO PUBLISHERS
In the past few years, OSCMS has reached a level of quality and time-to-market demanded by digital publishers, according to Rubim. "These OSS solutions can now keep up with the pace previously owned by only proprietary software and inhouse solutions, especially for enterprises," says Rubim.
An OSCMS should be considered by electronic content providers, says Todd Barr, CMO of Alfresco Software, Inc., an OSCMS provider in Atlanta, because it offers unparalleled flexibility in meeting unique needs. "By taking a standardsbased approach, digital publishers can mix and match solutions from a variety of vendors with a variety of support levels to meet their project requirements and stay within budget," says Barr. Examples of content-heavy sites that currently rely on OSCMS tools to help publish content include Harvard Business Review, Economist.com, Martha Stewart.com, ZAGAT.com, and American Public Media's Marketplace.
"Open source makes for better software," says Mike O'Connor, co-founder and president of Commerce Guys in Ann Arbor, Mich., an ecommerce business that integrates Drupal into its customers' internet sales platforms. "It is especially important for publishers because the world of publishing is changing rapidly. In the last few years, we've seen a transition from primarily print-based media to electronic consumption. However, the customer experience varies for every publisher. The needs of an engineer referencing a trade journal and those of a reader browsing the news are very different. The best way to meet these divergent customer needs is with [open source] software that gives you full control of both the data as well as how you present it."
Modern OSCMSs have evolved to provide better user interfaces for system administrators and content managers/publishers, improved code structure and architecture to embrace more developers, and enhanced support to connect to different channels (e.g., mobile) and solutions (analytics, customer relationship management, etc.).
Mark Goodnight, principal with The Goodnight Group, LLC, a Reston, Va. -headquartered content intelligence consulting firm, says his clients were clamoring for affordable and effective CMS solutions since he was a technical business consultant in 1995 for Standard Register and The Reynolds and Reynolds Co., two of the largest document production companies around.
"My job was to assist clients who wanted to move off paper solutions onto digital media, improving the related business processes as a result," Goodnight says. "As their infrastructures improved, software solutions somehow remained out of the reach of their wallets. That entire model is turned on its head now. Even the smallest of businesses can deploy a robust, world-class CMS solution at a fraction of the cost if they adopt one of the better OSCMS products."
Goodnight says he's seen many government and private organizations with an expensive proprietary CMS in place that actually uses only about 10% of its capability. "This is in large part due to the fact that the interfaces for these proprietary systems are cumbersome, confusing and just not very intuitive," says Goodnight. "This leads to using the platforms as a glorified shared drive."
One Uncle Sam entity that recently migrated to OSCMS, saving taxpayers an estimated $10 million per year in the process, is the U.S. Department of Energy, says Ben Finklea, CEO of Volacci Corp., a Drupal-focused internet marketing firm in Austin, Texas.
"OSCMS can replace publishing software, intranets, extranets, blogs, corporate relations, project management (software), social networks and so much more," Finklea says.
THE BENEFITS OF AN OPEN SOURCE CMS
Like any business decision, choosing to work with an OSCMS has its own pros and cons. The advantages of using an OSCMS include the following:
* No licensing fee
* Ample community support from developers around the globe who are constantly working to improve the platform
* Personalization (Since the code is open, users have more freedom to customize the solution for their own use.)
* Faster time-to-market (Since most OSCMSs leverage many companies using the platform, new implementations are quickly shared with the community.)
* Preloaded tools (Users can employ thousands of preloaded components created by the community)
* No vendor lock-in
* Flexibility (An organization can integrate with any other solution, as opposed to the ones limited by proprietary software companies.)
"Depending on the platform, you can save hundreds of thousands in hard costs (using an OSCMS)," says O'Connor, who added that most users cite the cost savings reaped by eliminating license fees as the greatest benefit. "However, the real question is, how much more can you make due to the ability provided by OSS to innovate faster than your competitors and build a site that better fits your users "
For Goodnight, the biggest plus of using an OSCMS is the support infrastructure. While subscription services for OSCMS support are the norm, "[W]ith open source there are literally thousands of very bright developers who are more than happy to help with any issue or development ideas you may have," he says. "After many years integrating a proprietary ECM system, I can't tell you how many times I would call their helpdesk only to be told that their most experienced engineers had left the company, leaving me on my own to solve their bug. Give me the open world of a collective intelligence any day."
Eliminating vendor lock-in is another major boon.
"Because the code is available to everyone, your needs can be fulfilled by many companies," says O'Connor.
An additional OSS advantage is innovation, O'Connor adds. Many OSS projects have hundreds of developers from dozens of countries around the world contributing to it, which helps the software keep pace with industry trends.
CAVEATS OF CONCERN
An OSCMS may technically be free, but that doesn't mean it comes without a price. Its disadvantages include the following:
* Support uncertainty: A major risk in adopting an OSCMS is the possibility of a small support community behind it - which increases the chances that the software could be abandoned or experience a shortage of companies providing maintenance assistance and resources.
* Future -proofing: Implementing patches, updates, and enhancements to the core version of the platform needs to be part of your IT team's strategy.
* Training: As the solution can be customized to your organization, some level of education may be needed to engage new partners and/or support teams so they know how to best use the solution to meet your organization's needs.
With an open source system, publishers need to understand that they get what they pay for, says Barr.
"Don't be deceived by the lack of an upfront price tag," Barr says. "You are either going to spend money developing and maintaining expertise, or you are going to need to pay for that help. [Publishers] shouldn't incorporate software into their core business processes which they are not paying to support or willing to support themselves."
Bob Egner, vice president of product management for EPiServer, Inc., a Chicago-headquartered web CMS software company, cautions that open source may not be the best answer for many electronic publishers.
"If you've got a simple set of content you need to publish, most open source software can do an adequate job of providing the platform to write and create content," Egner said. "But to drive to the next level, you may find shortcomings in areas like online engagement and managing advertising placement. [With OSCMS] , the auctioning or spot buy capabilities to reprice different areas of advertising slots on the site become a much bigger challenge for online publishers. And these are functions that OSCMS has not really built out to support."
Egner says his customers have switched from an open source platform to a commercial and proprietary content management system because OSS is simply "too much work."
"They've found a lot of missing functionality. They either have to build [solutions] themselves or find some other technology components which are not free from a licensing standpoint," says Egner.
Ultimately, the risks of OSS development are identical to those of any software project. "Vendors can over-promise and under-deliver just like OSS projects can," says O'Connor. "The best way to ensure that your project is successful is to invest in up-front planning and developing acceptance criteria."
THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE COMMITTING TO OPEN SOURCE
Prior to choosing an OSCMS, experts recommend performing the necessary due diligence. "Although an OSCMS's core of features is key, more important is the ability to provide flexible - and cheap - customizations to satisfy the needs of digital publishers, allowing them to also differentiate from competitors," says Rubim.
Above all, make sure you have the necessary support system in place. "That means working with enterprise open source provided by vendors like Red Hat or Alfresco, having a reliable jack-of-all trades consultant, or managing a team of consultants," Barr says.
Not all OSCMSs are equal, cautioned Goodnight. Before jumping into any product, involve someone in scoping and creating the solution around what you need and then design something as simple to use as possible.
"Once you have settled on a solid design, compare the features you need against the best-of-breed OSCMS systems available," Goodnight says. "And check to make sure there are plenty of local providers that can support the platform."
Additionally, the OSCMS should provide an easy-to-use and intuitive interface to maximize productivity, thus minimizing the need for training and technical understanding of how to interact with the platform. The platform should also be reliable and fast to a point where it can handle viral posts, content moderation, and content update and dissemination at a speed your business requires.
O'Connor says he would consider carefully how you plan to monetize your site as well. "Are you selling ebooks and subscriptions Will your customers manage their accounts over the web Will you have a paywall Only after you have a solid business understanding - and a plan to increase revenue - should you start looking at software options," says O'Connor.
FORECASTING THE FUTURE OF FREE
Rubim predicted that OSCMSs will continue to be used by more businesses across the digital content publishing spectrum.
"Aligned with cloud providers, mobile solutions and SaaS (ondemand software) models, (OSCMSs) will provide the best of both worlds to content publishers - state-of-theart software features along with an economically sustainable production and support model," says Rubim.
Goodnight expects a handful of worthy solutions to rise to the top in coming years, while proprietary systerns will either be forced to change their business model or perish. "Anyone who thinks their software is too deeply ingrained, big and expensive to be displaced by an open source framework is just kidding themselves," he says.
Finally, while it will always be necessary for a team to use a system to manage digital content and prepare it for publication, the OSCMS arena will evolve in two key ways in the near future. "Mobile support will continue to become more important, and the cost savings of leveraging a cloud provider to host the system will become more compelling," says Barr.
Choosing a CMS is never an easy decision - even when the software is free - but it's become ever more challenging as the choices and feature sets have continued to grow. Now companies must not only choose between vendors, but they must decide whether or not open source products are also in the running. And our experts seem to agree, you should at least be considering OSCMS.
'Open source makes for better software.'
Adobe Systems, Inc.
Alfresco Software, Inc.
Android operating system
Apache HTTP Server
www.emc.com/enterprise -content-management/ documentum-platform.htm
The Economist Newspaper Ltd.
The Goodnight Group, LLC
Harvard Business Review
Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc.
Mozilla Firefox internet browser
Red Hat, Inc.
The Reynolds and Reynolds Co.
U.S. Department of Energy
'Don't be deceived by the lock of an upfront price tog.'
ERIK J. MARTIN (MARTINSPIRATI0N@GMAIL.COM) IS A CHICAGO-BASED FREELANCE WRITER WHOSE ARTICLES HAVE BEEN FEATURED IN A VARIETY OF PUBLICATIONS, INCLUDING THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE, READER'S DIGEST, LOS ANGELES TIMES, AND PATCH.COM. HE OFTEN WRITES ON TOPICS RELATED TO TECHNOLOGY, REAL ESTATE, BUSINESS, ENTERTAINMENT, AND HEALTHCARE. TO READ HIS BLOG, VISIT http://MARTINSPIRATI0N.BL0GSP0T.COM.
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