Something that I read quite often in Requests for Proposals, especially from charities and publicly funded projects, is the requirement to use an Open Source CMS.
We’re all for open source. Most of the technology that runs our studio is either open source, or builds upon open source projects. We even maintain a few projects ourselves.
But the requirement for a website to run on open source software is one that’s baffled me for a while. Here’s the possible myths behind why I think it might be requested:-
It’s true that the code of open source software is free to use. And many commercial CMS can cost a small fortune.
But neither of those points are universally true. For example, Wordpress might be free to use - but it’s known for it’s many security attacks. The cost of getting an agency to continuously be testing and maintaining the website would likely quickly outweigh the license cost of a more reliable commercial CMS such as Craft CMS which only costs around £140 and requires far fewer security upgrades.
Your site may use open source tools, but unless you’re planning on sharing the code publicly and allowing others to contribute and adapt it, your site itself isn’t open source.
In reality your website will be a mixture of standard HTML and CSS that plugs into your CMS using standard methods any savvy developer could pick up. A responsible agency will even document this all for you in case you want to go elsewhere in future.
Furthermore, many CMS - open and closed source - use the same methods to build templates. Take Twig for example, it’s used to build templates for both Drupal (an open source project), and Craft CMS (a commercial product).
It's true that the market share of Wordpress means that more developers are familiar with it. But if you look at the average commercial CMS you would probably be surprised how many good agencies near you use them.
And it's true that if you had an entirely bespoke CMS made for your website, that's also going to be hard to find people to inherit it. Be sure to note that closed source doesn't mean bespoke. Closed source can be just as off-the-shelf as open-source, except its source code is privately owned.
One of the beautiful parts of Open Source code is that anybody and everybody can contribute. If there’s a bug and somebody knows a fix, they can contribute to the project and everybody benefits.
Commercial CMS can benefit from this too. Take Craft for example. It uses and actively contributes to the open source Yii and Twig projects, but adds its own proprietary magic.
Frankly, if as a website owner you’re having to get involved in technical support with an open source community instead of speaking to your agency - something’s gone severely wrong. Their job is to help and support you, open source or closed source. It’s literally what they're there for.
Additionally, it's worth noting that for any given open source project, very few if any people are actually employed to work for that project. So most people in the community have absolutely no obligation to offer you help. Most communities are full of good people happy to help, but you're by no means entitled to it.
With a commercial CMS on the other hand, you often get support included with the license fee.
Plus, reliable first party support for open source projects can be expensive. To have WordPress’ staff guaranteed support you need their “VIP Support” which starts at around £10,000 per year and have to meet a strict criteria to be eligible for it.
Regrettably I think this one is all too often true. “Open source” sounds positive, and it sounds technical.
Many people writing RFPs in large organisations don’t have the technical knowledge but want to show a bit of knowledge. I understand that, this industry can be way too intimidating at times. It moves quickly and it's full of jargon.
But when writing RFPs people should use their skill level to their advantage and find an agency that they can speak with easily and honestly. Otherwise frictions will appear during the project.
If you’re putting out a request for proposal that insists on open source, ask yourself: in reality, would using an open source CMS actually give us any real world benefits? If you’re uncertain, open up the conversation up a bit and weigh up the benefits.
PS: We love working with charities and public sector websites. If you're at one and want to chat after reading this please contact us and I'll happily spend some time with you in person or by phone.