November 21st, 2012

The Birds and Bees of Open-Source Content Management Systems


In this two-part blog series, we will examine how open-source content management systems (CMSs) can both save and cost you money. In addition, we’ll briefly touch on the strengths of the most popular content management systems: WordPress, Joomla!, and Drupal.

What Is Open-Source?

First, let’s define the “source” part of open-source. In application development and programming, the term “source” refers to the application’s internal code. This code is the source of instructions for the computer running an application or program; this code tells the computer what to do and when to do it.

Each programming language has its own unique language, syntax, and “grammar.” However, the unique language of the source-code is ultimately translated into binary (machine code). Binary provides a common language all computers can understand, which allows for cross-platform integration.

What Makes Open-Source, Open?

The open part of open-source references the source-code’s availability for any given application. If the human-readable source-code is made available to anyone using the application, then the application is considered to be open-source.

On the other hand, some applications will only provide you the compiled machine code required for a computer to run the program on your own computer. These applications are considered to be closed-source since it is not possible for a user to look at the source-code required to make the application run.

A common misconception is that open-source means free. Although the majority of open-source software is provided at little to no cost, software does not have to be free to be considered open-source. The term merely refers to the application’s source-code availability.

Mommy… Where Do Open-Source Programs Come From?

When large numbers of people are interested in seeing the same or very similar software, a smaller community may coalesce around the needs of the group as a whole.  The smaller community, often comprised of developers, work collaboratively with the intent to develop a solution to fulfill the entire community’s needs.

There are  a lot of open-source software programs, but for the sake of brevity, here are a few specific examples:


Formed in 2004 around the vision to provide “free software, available free of charge to everybody on the same terms, and funded through a portfolio of services provided by Canonical.”


The Mozilla project launched in 1998 to harness the community for innovations with the Netscape browser. In 2002 Mozilla’s community released their own browser, Phoenix, which eventually became Firefox. Mozilla offers a full timeline of their community milestones and software releases on their website.

Apache’s OpenOffice

OpenOffice began as StarOffice, a proprietary office suite for Germany company, StarDivision. Sun Microsystem acquired StarDivision in 1999. In the following year, Sun Microsystems renamed StarOffice to OpenOffice and provided the source-code to the public with the intent to create a free alternative to Microsoft Office.

Open-Source Content Management Systems

Content Management System (CMS) software follows similar progressions. The Internet was crying out for a quick and easy way for people without programming or HTML skills to be able to edit the content of their web sites, and the developers answered.

The great thing about these open-source solutions is that they all tend to do things in a slightly different fashion. There are hundreds of open-source content management systems. Drupal, Joomla! and WordPress are by far the most popular and are where we’ll focus:


Usage: 63.7% of Top Million Sites
Framework: A blog style CMS organized by post types and pages.
History: Originally written with the idea of being a place for someone to post sequential text and occasional images for their readers, or a sort of online newsletter or news feed if you will.


Usage:  11.5% of Top Million Sites
Framework: Built with the intent to be easily customized for website developers.
History: Originally written to be an all purpose CMS with the ability for people to upload, manage, delete, and structure content with varying degrees of authorship. This allowed there to be content writers, editors, publishers, etc to create a sort of newspaper hierarchy of authorship for all content published.


Usage: 9.49% of Top Million Sites
Framework: Began as a web-application framework for forums that bordered on the edge of content management.
History: The ability for Drupal to function as a CMS was more or less augmented into the framework by developers.

Cheers to the folks over at BuiltWith for the statistics.

Wait… I Can Save Money With Open-Source?

Consider this: you want to build a house from scratch but you have no idea where to start. Then one day, someone comes along and tells you about a place offering free delivery of a house frame – complete with drywall, wiring, and plumbing – to your plot of land. Would this free delivery save you time and money? You betcha.

Open-source software is just like this free house frame. Using open-source software provides a standard framework that a development team can build upon and customize for your needs.

The very nature of open-source programs lends to their easy extension and modifications. The ease of customization stems from the source-code’s availability to the community. With many people working within these frameworks, there are lots of updates, support and modifications being added to the source-code daily.

Say your organization needs an online donation system to raise money; chances are something similar has already been built by the community. If not, then something can easily be built to fit your framework, which will cost a lot less money than it would to build something entirely from scratch.

Find Your Dream Open-Source CMS!

Deciding which open-source framework is right for your particular site or project requires some deliberation. As a general overview, I’ll outline some of the biggest reasons you might choose one of the top three open-source CMSs below, but keep in mind these are merely guidelines, not certainties.


  • Ability to create a content workflow with writers, editors, and publishers
  • Easy to customize and build upon
  • Scheduled release of updates, which makes planning for major updates easier


  • Allows for many custom content types
  • Allows associated data to be connected for cross-referencing
  • Easy updates to the application and most modules/plugins from the admin panel


  • Immensely flexible application and data structures
  • Allows admins to create/edit data structure from the admin panel
  • Automatically creates database structure to adapt to application needs

These are just a few of the key highlights of each CMS. Many of them also have technical drawbacks, which are best explained on a case-by-case basis.

Regardless of which open-source content management system you choose to leverage for your next project, it’s important to understand how to properly use it. Failure to use the software correctly could cost you more money than it saves, and that’s what we’ll dive into in part two of this series about open-source content management systems.

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