There are two choices when it comes to building a website. You can choose an open source platform like Drupal or WordPress, or a proprietary platform overseen by a company like Adobe or Microsoft. How do you know which is best for your website?
Things to consider:
How much user support will I get?
Which is better for security?
Is the cost within budget?
For organizations with limited budgets, the choice is either an open source site or something less flexible like Wix or Squarespace – the cost attached to a proprietary platform might be out of reach. However, for a large enterprise organization, both approaches have pros and cons worth addressing.
Proprietary platforms can be attractive to many large organizations for several reasons. In addition to promising great platforms customized to the client's business needs, proprietary arrangements typically offer full hosting plans. The company behind the CMS handles all updates, upgrades, security issues, and bugs – often 24/7.
While proprietary software comes with a high price point, there's a sense of justification behind it: at least you get what you pay for.
It's worth noting, though, that many of the world's biggest corporate brands use Drupal as their CMS of choice, including General Electric, Tesla, IBM, Paramount Global, United Airlines, and the Royal Family. The Government of Australia operates on Drupal, as does the Government of Ontario, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), several US state governments, and countless other government agencies around the world.
So, why do organizations that have large budgets for web development opt for an open source platform, despite the supposed advantages touted by proprietary providers?
The answers are numerous, ranging from a need for financial accountability to the supportive nature of the Drupal community. These factors more than make up for any potential shortcomings of the open source model.
This article runs through some popular myths around proprietary and open source platforms that continue to influence decision making.
Myth #1: Proprietary platforms provide better user support
One of the main selling points of proprietary platforms is that its vendors promise 24/7 client support should anything go wrong with the site, or if you need anything customized. This 24/7 support comes at a cost. For institutions concerned about sudden emergencies, this is obviously an appealing offering that for many justifies the price tag.
What proprietary vendors won't tell you, however, is that open source platforms like Drupal provide much of the same service (typically in tandem with an agency and an infrastructure partner like Acquia or Pantheon). This is provided at no cost through their networks of volunteers and sponsored contributors.
Drupal, for example, is supported by a global community of hundreds of thousands of contributors who work collaboratively to address technical issues and improve the platform.
In the Drupal world, when you find a bug and create a report within the community, the response — while not necessarily instantaneous — is typically fast. While mission-critical sites like government platforms will need to pay somebody to be available for 24/7 support, this broader community support is of enormous benefit to all Drupal users.
Proprietary platforms do have counterparts to this type of community, but they're oftentimes much smaller. Sitecore, for example, advertises that it has a community of 20,000 developers. This is a drop in the bucket compared to the scope of the Drupal developer community.
Myth #2: Proprietary is more secure than open source
This is a stubborn myth — understandably. Open source code, by its nature, is publicly available to anyone, including individuals with malicious intent. In contrast, proprietary platforms keep their codebases under lock and key. The for-profit nature of proprietary vendors gives them a greater (financial) incentive to track down and neutralize bad actors.
The unpopular truth is that proprietary platforms are every bit as vulnerable to attacks as their open source counterparts — if not more so.
For one thing, most security breaches don't come from hackers scouring source code for weak spots, but from avoidable human lapses such as failures to follow security guidelines, improper software setup, use of easy passwords, lack of data validation processes, and absence of data encryption techniques. These lapses are no less likely to occur on a proprietary platform than they are on an open source one.
Paradoxically, the open source nature of platforms like Drupal is actually more of a help than a liability when it comes to cybersecurity. Open source code means that anyone with the know-how can search for and identify vulnerabilities. And with an army of over a million developers contributing behind the scenes, it's safe to say that Drupal takes its security very seriously. Proprietary vendors, by contrast, are limited in this capacity by their cybersecurity staffing numbers.
Myth #3: Proprietary costs more, so you get more value
It's widely believed that when you opt for a less expensive product —in this case, an open source website — you're either settling for a "less-good" quality product or setting yourself up for additional costs down the road in the form of upgrades and modifications. Proprietary websites may cost more at the outset, but at least you know you're getting something of real quality and the costs are predictable.
In truth, there is no difference in quality between open source and proprietary websites. It all depends on the quality of workmanship that goes into building the sites. And while any website project is vulnerable to budget overruns, proprietary platforms are actually more prone to them than open source ones.
When you opt for a proprietary platform, you automatically commit to paying for a license. This may be a one-time cost or a recurring subscription fee. In many cases, proprietary providers charge on a "per-seat" basis, meaning that the larger your team gets, the more expensive maintaining your website becomes. An open source site, by contrast, costs nothing beyond what you spend on design, and is in fact much more predictable from a cost standpoint.
This is of particular importance to governments, whose website development and renewal costs are publicly available and subject to intense media scrutiny. The Government of Canada faced negative press after it hired Adobe to restructure a vast swath of federal websites under the Canada.ca URL. A project originally valued at $1.54 million in 2015 had by the following year ballooned to $9.2 million. While details were scant, some of this budget overrun was attributed to costs due to additional staffing requirements. Cue impending doom music.
Websites built on open source platforms like Drupal aren't cheap to develop, but the costs are almost always more predictable. And when it's the taxpayers who are footing the bill, this is a major advantage.
Bonus: Open source = wider talent base
If you're a large government organization with complex web needs, chances are you'll be looking to hire in-house developers. From this standpoint, it makes much more sense to opt for an open source web platform in terms of available talent. The magnitude of the Drupal community relative to, say, Sitecore, means that your LinkedIn search is far more likely to turn up Drupal specialists in your area than Sitecore experts.
Similar disparities exist when it comes to providing your staff with training. Drupal training is widely available and affordable. Hint: they offer customized training. Becoming a licensed developer for something run by Adobe, by contrast, is a much more complex and expensive undertaking.
Why Drupal specifically?
I've touted Drupal extensively throughout this post, as Evolving Web is the home of many Drupal trainers, developers and experts However, it's far from the only open source CMS option out there. WordPress remains the world's most popular CMS platform, being used by some 43% of the world's websites.
Drupal does, however, stand out from the pack in a number of important ways. The Drupal platform simply has more features and is a lot more supportive of customization than most of its open source competitors. This is perhaps less of a big deal if you're a small business or organization with a narrow area of focus. But government websites are generally complex, high-traffic undertakings responsible for disseminating a wide range of content to a diverse array of audiences.
Other cool government sites are using It
Evolving Web recently redesigned the official website for the City of Hamilton. As the main online hub for Canada's ninth largest municipal area, serving some 800,000 people, the City of Hamilton website caters to a wide range of audiences, from residents and local business people to tourists and foreign investors. Its services run the gamut, enabling residents to plan public transit use, pay property taxes, find employment, apply for a marriage license, and get information on recreational activities, among many other options.
The City of Hamilton site exemplifies many of Drupal's strengths. Like many government websites, it encompasses vast swaths of data and resources and is subject to considerable surges in traffic, both of which Drupal is well equipped to handle. The site revamp also involved corralling various third-party services (including the recreation sign-up and council meeting scheduler) and a half-dozen websites that existed outside of Drupal. This required creative solutions of the sort that the Drupal community excels at developing.
Drupal upholds accessibility standards
A further advantage of Drupal for government websites is that its publishing platform, along with all of its other features and services, is designed to be fully accessible in accordance with WCAG standards. Drupal's default settings ensure accurate interpretation of text by screen readers, provide accessible color contrast, and intensity recommendations. They also generate pictures and forms that are accessible and incorporate skip navigation in its core themes.
You are in good company
All this attests to the strengths of the open source model — and of Drupal in particular — underpinned as it is by an army of over a million contributors. Thanks to this, the platform is in a constant state of improvement and innovation, of which every single Drupal user is a beneficiary.
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At Evolving Web, we specialize in helping organizations harness their online presence with open source platforms like Drupal and WordPress. Let's keep in touch!
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