The Soft Sell of Open Source over Proprietary

I do not know when it exactly happened, but a number of years ago I decided to become a pacifist. I am a pacifist that is in the war of open source versus proprietary. In my opinion, the debate over licensing and software development processes is only mildly interesting as it is the quality of the end product that matters to me most. I walk the fine line of being an advocate for open source and a defender of proprietary software. Admittedly I've confused a lot of people that have chosen to take sides in this war. However, there is always room for reasonable civil discussions of any topic when new data and new perspective is given. This is perhaps why within the past week I enjoyed reading a commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of Acquia that shows the value of open source without necessarily attacking the value of proprietary software.

The independent study conducted by Forrester is titled “Is It Time To Consider Open Source WCM For Digital Experience?”. Given that the study is being promoted by Acquia, an open source Drupal company, it shouldn't be surprising to you that this paper highlights the benefits of open source web content management systems (WCM). However, the author of the paper does this in way that that doesn't also dismiss the value of proprietary systems. This paper is an invitation with business reasons given for IT shops that for one reason or another remain proprietary to start considering using open source solutions. That soft sell in my opinion will win over more customers than the doomsday ideologies we often hear from both open source and proprietary proponents.

The case for Open Source WCM

The study found that open source WCM solutions have the highest satisfaction rate for creating dynamic, multichannel digital experiences. Of those who said they were ‘very satisfied’ with their existing WCM solution, open source had the highest satisfaction rate (37%) over “homegrown” (22%) and proprietary solutions (8%).

The Forrester study, commissioned by Acquia, surveyed 160 senior business, marketing and IT decision-makers from organizations with 1,000 to more than 20,000 employees. The survey revealed that 31% of organizations plan on switching WCM platforms this year and 58% indicate that their organization has considered or is considering open source WCM.

The Forrester study recommends that when organizations consider switching WCM solutions, they should explore open source as an option. Drupal was among the top five WCM solutions used by organizations that participated in the survey, and the leading open source solution. Among those who currently use open source WCM solutions, 72% said it gave them greater flexibility, and 68% said it was easy to customize.

When asked what other enterprise applications they would like to have bundled with their WCM solution, the majority of respondents (35%) said they prefer the ‘best-of-breed’ approach offered by open source WCM, as opposed to using all-in-one suites of pre-packaged tools and services offered by proprietary WCM solutions, which the report says often don’t live up to their promise.

According to one survey respondent from a UK educational institution, adding new functionality enhancements took nine to ten months with a proprietary WCM solution, but with open source, they were able to add new functionality within days. Another respondent said: “the ability to customize, along with the availability of the developer network, helped us keep up our pace of innovation.”

“As organizations retrench to become more dynamic and customer-centric, it’s abundantly clear that proprietary WCM solutions are not meeting the changing needs and expectations of business decision makers, who don’t want to be locked in to a rigid platform for the sake of convenience,” said Tom Erickson, CEO of Acquia. “The Forrester study revealed that marketers – who are responsible for creating compelling content, community and commerce experiences across multiple channels – are now the ones more aggressively pushing for flexible and open WCM solutions like Drupal.”

Marketer Dissatisfaction Prompting Greater Interest in Open Source Solutions

According to the survey, marketing professionals appear more likely than their IT counterparts to consider open source WCM (67% vs. 56%, respectively). The fact that marketers have surpassed their IT counterparts in this regard could be an indicator of their growing dissatisfaction with their present WCM platform.

Indeed, marketers expressed the most dissatisfaction with their WCM solution over IT pros by more than three-to-one (26% vs. less than 8%). With customer-facing digital experiences (including content delivery, community engagement and commerce) ranked among the top five functions of WCM platforms, it is not surprising that the majority of executives pushing for change in their WCM platform are marketers (55%) rather than IT executives (26%).


Planning Leads To Open Source Success

The study also noted that organizations that were focused more on key business drivers and objectives had greater success with open source, as opposed to leveraging it for its proven cost-cutting capabilities alone

For instance, the report showed that web site redesigns were more of a business driver for open source (30%) versus proprietary WCM solution users (14%), perhaps reflecting the more complex requirements of creating customer-facing multichannel digital experiences (as opposed to corporate intranets or other corporate/IT uses), and the dissatisfaction with current solutions in supporting those requirements.

Similarly, organizations that made specific plans to engage dedicated third-party providers (such as Acquia), and leverage pre-packaged modules from the open source community, had the most success with open source WCM implementations.

The Case for remaining neutral in Open Source versus Proprietary

One of the things I value in this study is that while the research favors the use of open source WCM solutions it does not understate the need for organizations to consider which WCM solution fits their needs better. For example in the Executive Summary the Forrester analysts words their stance in the open source versus proprietary software in this way:

We recommend that organizations considering new WCM products explore open source as a potentially viable option, take advantage of the lack of upfront license fee to pilot an open source project, engage with open source WCM communities for information and validation, and be sure to understand support options up front if they choose to proceed with an open source implementation.

The words are carefully written where it's not saying that open source is better than proprietary but only that companies and organizations should consider the use of open source software. The analysts give two reasons for why companies may be reluctant to moving from proprietary solutions to software solutions; security and functionality.

Despite the widespread interest, interviewees told us that there are significant differences between implementing proprietary and open source WCM solutions. An organization evaluating open source WCM should consider the following:

• Security. Perception of security risks in open source solutions may not be unfounded. Among respondents who have deployed open source WCM, only 12% strongly agree that open source improved their security; 47% were neutral on the subject. Forty-one percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that “open source improved our security” — so 88% were either neutral or negative on the topic of open source security. It’s important to understand the details of security concerns — whether they relate specifically to system security, user security, and permissions, for example — and compare them with their proprietary counterparts. Just saying “security” as a reason for selecting or rejecting a technology isn’t enough.

• Level of functionality. Proprietary WCM vendors seem to offer a wide variety of features and capabilities. But, like eating too much ice cream, too many features for the sake of features can be a bad thing, and organizations may only implement a fraction of the features they buy. However, in a market where the vendor checking the most boxes often wins, having lots of features can still hold sway. WCM buyers currently focus on functionality like mobile delivery, integrated analytics, and content targeting. Open source platforms depend largely on an extended network of peer developers who contribute features and modules to the core systems. This can result in variable experiences with specific modules and features or force companies that adopt open source to innovate quickly to gain the capabilities they want. It’s important to understand which features are most important to your organization and examine whether those features are available in the core product, community-authored modules, or both.

While I agree with the authors that there are certain hurdles open source vendors must still overcome to convince proprietary only shops to consider open source, I'm not convinced either open source or proprietary solutions have an advantage over the other with regards to security and functionality. While the discussion of security and level of functionality in a WCM are valid discussions, it is my observation that no vendor has cornered this market solely based on whether they are open source or proprietary. 

I interpret the fact that Acquia is pushing this research to also mean they are confident that they too can argue that security and functionality are perceived hurdles that open source can easily overcome. One only has to look at Microsoft and Apple to understand that just because companies offer proprietary solutions doesn't mean the debate over which product offers more security and functionality will end. In fact, I submit that any organization that believes their WCM is more secure over another based on the software license is probably unknowingly incubating an organizational culture that makes them more vulnerable and not less to security threats. Securing your software and having the content management functionality you need to support your business is a much more complex issue and one shouldn't let the open source versus proprietary discussion distract them from that truth.

Forrester's Recommendations to Evaluating Open Source Solutions

In the end of the report, the analysts gives these key recommendations in answering the question, "Is open source the solution to your WCM chaos?":

• Actively evaluate open source WCM. - Don’t allow past biases against open source to control your technology decisions today; while some of the concerns you had five years ago may remain valid, others probably won’t.

• Leverage “free” open source for WCM pilots. Open source provides an excellent opportunity that many (if not most) commercial, proprietary WCM platforms fail to permit: full-scale software downloads that allow organizations to build pilot solutions on open source WCM without committing to a paid license.

• Engage with the community for information and validation. Organizations evaluating open source WCM should engage with the community for references and to evaluate the level of community involvement for particular open source projects or products.

• Explore open source support options carefully. - Organizations considering open source should evaluate third-party agencies to discover which open source products they support, types of service-level agreements available, and whether or not they will support any community-authored modules needed to meet their requirements.

A copy of the Forrester Study, Is It Time To Consider Open Source WCM For Digital Experience?, can be requested from the Acquia website.

[Additional Source: Press Release]