At the moment at Kent we’re considering our options for CMS. We’ve been looking at enterprise CMS, and had a few fairly impressive demos of their capabilities.
But at the end of one demo, someone asked the sales guy why we should pay almost double the price for a licence than a competitor was asking, and over £150k more than an open source CMS we’d seen. Bear in mind that all the CMSs we’d seen seemed so similar that my CMSized brain had begun confusing one with another.
Their answer was telling: it’s more expensive because it’s better. Trust me.
Expensive is a good thing?
Ok so this isn’t exactly a brilliant sell. But this raises a key point, and one which is becoming more and more prevalent in software development. Is more expensive really better? In fact, maybe freely available open source can be even better still. Not only do you often have the same level of expertise going into a piece of software, but typically the experts are far more numerous. The risks are no greater (no companies going bust on you), and bug fixes and security holes are often spotted quicker and fixed sooner than in proprietary software.
Open source isn’t free
But before we get carried away with open source, it’s worth standing back a little and looking at the real costs of open source. For small applications in small-scale operations, open source is now a no-brainer. If you just want a small blog for yourself or company, why would you pay for blogging software when you have such great open source blogging tools?
It gets a little trickier with enterprise level software. It gets particularly tricky with CMS. The reason is again one of complexity. To get any CMS to do what you really need and want takes time and technical skill, neither of which are free.
Open source is cheap
One of the first things sales people from a big CMS vendor will say when you mention open source is: ‘oh but you’ll just end up spending loads of money and time trying to get the thing to work’. They say this as though this wouldn’t apply to their product. But just say someone could offer me the same level of support they could offer, but without the licence fee.
Why do I want an expensive licence?
Buying in a CMS with a costly licence doesn’t seem likely for us, and is becoming an increasingly unattractive option for institutions and companies with a reasonable amount of in-house expertise. My personal feeling is that the gap between expensive ‘enterprise’ level CMS and open source CMS is closing, and the benefits of paying perhaps as much as £80-100k (or more) just for a licence are becoming very unclear.
Things get blurred when you consider what you’re really getting for a full-on enterprise CMS. The actual licence itself gives you the right to use a piece of software which out-the-box will be pretty much useless for your actual needs. Generally you will have to pay about 20% of the licence each year just to pay for support and maintenance (updates and the like).
And you will need that support. Don’t think for a moment that you’ll buy a CMS, press a button, and all your problems will be solved. All too many people who buy a CMS have this romantic notion somewhere at the back of their minds, because of course everyone wants an easier life. The sorts of issues to be sorted out with the vendor will be: how do you migrate your existing content? Maybe you’ll have to think about content types too. And of course there’s the whole area of permissions and roles and groups, never mind more technical questions to do with server setup, caching, etc.
So now you’ve got through the first 6 months or so. You’ve spent maybe over £100k on your CMS, and it’s not really what you’d hoped for. The new website you’d been promising hasn’t quite happened yet, and maybe the support you were promised isn’t all that great because the vendor has just secured a much more lucrative contract. Would you be in this position had you gone down the open source route?
Well the answer is: quite possibly. But you wouldn’t have lost so much money. Open source CMS doesn’t promise anything more than a licensed product. But it doesn’t promise anything less. The point is that you’ll still have to do a lot of in-house development, tweaking, fiddling, server configuration, etc. But now you’re doing it without the costly licence looming over you.
But what about that crucial support? Open source means you’re on your own, right? Not so. An increasing number of companies are there to help you, for a fee. Back to money again, but at least you’re now only paying for support, not that ugly fat licence. And even better, because the product is completely open source, and company is able to support it as well as any other. There are no monopolies on support licences.
So there must be drawbacks to the open source route? I suppose the main one is that there are a limited
number of open source systems which can reasonably call themselves ‘enterprise level’. Plone, MySource Matrix, Magnolia, OpenCMS are the ones that spring to mind, and each of these has its drawbacks in terms of either usability or a broad enough user-base. Each has a company or companies who will support you as much as you’re willing to pay, but again we’re back to the licence model, where there’s that nagging doubt that you’re locking yourself into something from which an escape may be tricky.
In conclusion, you can spend a lot of money on buying a licensed CMS. And then spend a lot more money on support for that product. Or you can get something for free, and spend the money you would have spent on support… on support. Does that sound ridiculously obvious? Few institutions and companies (curiously) feel comfortable with the thought that a free product could ever be as good as an expensive one, even though all the evidence is beginning to suggest quite the contrary is true.