Open source websites: What they are, how they work and why it’s important to know – part two

Who would you prefer underpin your business website?  The community or a company?

In last week’s blog, I looked at some of the background to open source (OS) and outlined differences between it and the company or proprietary alternative.

Before I go on, I have to stress that I have no interest in advocating either method of web development. My digital services business has a strict ‘best solution for the specific needs and budget of the client’ policy. We currently maintain a number of OS websites.

However, in carefully examining the requirements of our clients, all of whom have less than 30 staff, we have rarely gone with an OS solution.

There are two key reasons for this (among a swathe of smaller ones). 

Relatively high value

The first is value for money. The proprietary systems generally contain the latest features – usually far more than a smaller business would ever use. Nowadays, these systems contain features and functionality that not so long ago would cost a large business up to millions of dollars to develop from ‘the ground up’.

Price-wise they start at a mere $15 a month including hosting. For this you get a complete and fully tested and supported system. They are constantly being improved and upgraded for no extra charge so you often end up getting far more features and functionality than you ever signed up for. 

If there are any problems you generally have an in-house team of support staff at the ready to deal with your issue. And given their employers are in full control of the system, they have usually seen the issue before and can quickly resolve it – at no further cost to you.

These factors mean that both you and your web professional can get on with what you do best – and leave what can be the massive task of maintenance and security up to company-employed professionals.

Relatively low risk

The second reason is risk.  For all the bullish commentary they attract, OS systems come with absolutely no guarantee of performance or commitment to its longevity. Being developed and maintained by (admittedly often skilled and talented) volunteer enthusiasts, there is no incentive, other than the goodwill of this community, to ensure that the system remains completely reliable, secure and sustainable.

Of particular risk is the array of feature ‘plug-ins’ that are used to add functionality to your website. These are developed by different members of the OS community who often charge for their use. In most cases there are no safeguards in place to guarantee the performance or security of these plug-ins. 

There are plenty of well-documented instances of plug-ins containing serious security or functionality flaws, which can undermine not only the performance of your website but leave you exposed to a faulty, or worse, insecure website.

In fact these plug-ins can often compromise what might otherwise be relatively sound OS platforms. 

Lock-in and freedom

On the other hand, OS supporters predominantly cite ‘vendor lock-in’ (being forced to remain with a platform vendor and their pricing and upgrade policies) and ‘inability to access the code’ (the software building blocks of all web platforms) and the fact that it is ‘free’ as sound reasons to build in OS.

But to me the vendor lock-in argument is a poor one.  Every single piece of software a business uses has vendor lock-in.  It’s a common aspect of technology that is avoided by simply doing your research and getting good, impartial advice on the best technology to go with. 

And even if a switch is necessary, chances are that you have received good ROI on your initial investment anyway – particularly compared to the cost of having developers maintain and support non-company software and systems. 

The other common argument is around not being able to access the code of proprietary systems, meaning that non-company developers can’t ‘get in’ and make any changes to the functionality.

Again though, if your platform is well-researched and chosen in the first place, this won’t be an issue.  As outlined above, a good platform will have more features than a smaller business operator will ever need – just like all software it purchases.

A minority view

So given these quite compelling reasons to use proprietary rather than OS technology to underpin your website, why is there such widespread acceptance and promotion of OS while the proprietary alternatives get short shrift?  Even SmartCompany bloggers have been strongly pro-OS, such as this recent blog.

It’s a question my team and I are constantly grappling with.

The answer appears to be in the perspective of the writers and/or commentators promoting OS.  In the main, they are developers themselves who love to get their hands dirty with development code.  They enjoy coming up with new software and helping others achieve the same goal.

There is no crime in this.  It’s a free country and enthusiasts have every right to broaden their creativity and skills by coming up with new technology developments. In fact, the practice can lead to some amazing technology advances. 

Closed development environments stultify this creativity.  All that code developers need to play and experiment with is locked away.  As a result they feel frustrated and so vent this at any opportunity they get.  And this is what gets the most air time in the media and blogosphere.

But their passion and creativity and your business requirements are two entirely different things.

A time and place for creativity

By all means developers should go and experiment with great software ideas, but not at the expense of smaller businesses who just want a website that will do what they want, when they want it with minimum interruption, inconvenience and expense.

They want to know that the website won’t fall over, that it is easy for them to use and will be affordable to maintain. If anything was to go wrong, they need it to be resolved quickly and easily. Free upgrades and new features are also pretty attractive.

They are also prepared to pay reasonable prices to achieve these goals.

And, every way we look at it, that usually means using a proprietary platform.

One web developer’s view

In closing, and just to ensure my views aren’t isolated, I’ll leave you with a few comments from the owner of a San Francisco web design firm that I came across in a recent forum:

Open source software is built by hobbyists for hobbyists – who by definition get pleasure in messing around with the topic of their hobby. 

If you think it would be great fun to spend your spare time finding and installing the latest great plug-in to make your site work correctly, after installing the last mandatory security patch that broke the old plug-in, and reprogramming things to work with that new plug-in which works just a bit differently than the last one, then by all means use that open source software. You’ll get many hours of pleasure every month. 

Check their own site for releases – they issue urgent security updates every couple of months. (In most products, these would be called emergency recalls.) 

But if you’d rather have your website work for you, and spend your time in your business, with your family, or your other interests, then forget the free software that some web people choose to use because it costs them nothing (and makes them a lot when they have to fix hacked sites). 

And by the way – the hackers? They aren’t teenagers sitting in the basement in their pyjamas trying to break into your website. They are ‘robot’ programs that scour the internet, thousands of sites per minute, looking for open source sites that have not installed the latest security patch (which they know about because they are published for everyone to see) so they can install their viruses on your site.

Bottom line? Get at least one quote for a proprietary website platform when embarking on a new website and compare the difference. The only problem with this approach is that the all-important future costs of either type of platform won’t be apparent.

But that’s the topic of another blog.

In addition to being a leading e-business educator to the smaller business sector, Craig Reardon is the founder and director of independent web services firm The E Team which was established to address the special website and web marketing needs of SMEs in Melbourne and beyond.



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