Ah…the age-old question: should I choose an open-source or closed-source content management system (CMS)? As a digital strategy agency—especially one with more than 500 websites launched to date—we come across this challenge with our clients every day. Open source vs. closed source: the battle continues.

Choosing between open source and closed source, or proprietary, is often the first step when selecting your CMS, the backbone of your website. Once you narrow down what type of software you prefer to work with, you can get into the nitty-gritty requirements and specifications.

I want to put it out there that we are a technology agnostic agency (despite the fun we'd have selecting a champion in the open source vs. closed battle royale). As proud partners of both Drupal and Kentico, we can tell you everything you need to know about open- and closed-source platforms. In the end, it all comes down to you: your needs, your preferences, and your budget. (If you need more help with this, use our checklist to select the best content management system.)

So what exactly is the difference between open source and closed source?

Open Source

Open source refers to software that has its source code made available to the public by the original creator or copyright holder. The goal of opening the source code to the public is that developers all over the world can study, modify, and share the software with anyone.

The most obvious benefit to this free-for-all approach to software development is that…well…it’s free for all. That’s why CMSes like Drupal and WordPress don’t cost a dime.

Public Source Code - Open Source vs. Closed Source

When working in an open source environment, programmers have access to the source code giving them full control and flexibility to customize any and all features. This leaves you with thousands of add-on modules ready to install out of the box—an endless list of possibilities for your web project. With so many extensions and modules, open source is a cost-effective solution for most businesses. And, if you have in-house developers, they’ll appreciate the large, diverse support base around the world.

Closed Source

As you would guess, closed source is the opposite of open source: closed source is proprietary software that cannot be modified or distributed by the public. The source code is closed from the public, meaning the infrastructure cannot be altered.

Furthermore, while open source is free to the public, closed source is owned by a proprietor or copyright holder who charges a licensing fee to access.

You may ask, “But, Melissa, if closed source costs money and open source is free, why would I ever choose a closed-source CMS?”

Well, my inquisitive reader, the dichotomy is not so black and white.

Closed Door - Open Source vs. Closed Source

A closed-source software is traditionally maintained by a large technology corporation with access to account executives, customer service, on-boarding reps, marketing specialists, tech support, and so on and so on. The point: your licensing fee doesn’t just pay for the software, but also the support from a major technology partner.

Some say that a closed source CMS is more secure than open source. I suppose I can see the reasoning: closed source must mean that the source code is better protected than software left open to the public. But that’s not completely accurate.

I asked Boston Digital's VP of Engineering Tadd Barnes to weigh in:

“The idea that closed source software is more secure than open source is a myth,” Tadd told me.  “Security isn’t ‘better’ with one technology over another, and closed source doesn’t mean more secure. For example, Flash is closed-source, and it’s one of the biggest security risks. On the flip side RSA encryption is open-source, and it’s the trusted source for online commerce.”

The idea that closed source software is more secure than open source is a myth.

Do You Have a Technology Preference?

As you can see, the open- and closed-source platforms have their benefits and their limitations. However, we encourage you to explore your options, ask the right questions, and understand your needs.

If you are still unsure about the difference between the two, we’d be happy to walk you through each platform and get to the bottom of your CMS needs. Contact us today.

The Ultimate Guide to Web Design Best Practices