Proprietary vs. Open Source Content Management Systems

The land of Content Management Systems has changed greatly over the years, from first only managing content in hard-coded HTML files, to Dreamweaver, to hundreds of full-blown systems created for the sole purpose of adding, editing, and removing content. We often help clients decide what system makes the most sense for their organizational and user needs, as the decision is nothing less than intimidating.

A question that often initiates this process is categorical comparison, between the Proprietary and Open Source routes. In this case, I’m defining Proprietary as a system built, owned, licensed, and supported by one company, normally requiring significant financial investment. Open Source, in this case, is the development or creation of a system using open source technologies and frameworks, like Ruby on Rails or Python. There is a third category that I’m leaving out, for the time being, including Off The Shelf options, that may technically be either Open Source or Proprietary, but muddles the lines between the categories (like Wordpress, ExpressionEngine, Craft, or Drupal).

There certainly is no clear “winner” for everyone, as the tool should enable organizations to fulfill business objectives, and the makeup of organizations, those objectives, and end users, vary greatly. But to start, here are the pros and cons of Proprietary and Open Source Content Management Systems that can aid in making those decisions:



  • Predictability - features are documented and can generally be demoed, pricing is consistent
  • Options - there are plenty of proprietary CMSes out there
  • Robust - generally come packed with a lot of features
  • Cost to implement - since the system is already built, there are often less upfront costs


  • Less current - proprietary CMSes are generally not using the newest or best technology, because there's a lot invested in a large legacy system
  • Licensing fees - you pay to use the software, you do not own it
  • Handcuffed to one or just a couple provider(s) - supported only by the company that sells it or limited implementation partners–if you're unhappy with service, support, flexibility, there are no other options
  • Lack of customization - "what you see is what you get"–the system is not created for your unique needs, but generalized to meet the needs of all their clients
  • Lack of flexibility - do you want to do something the system doesn’t do? It is often very difficult to get new features developed for a proprietary system, because of all the generalized dependencies across their clients

Open Source


  • Customizations - an open source system can be built and customized to your specific needs, both in initial setup and in the future; as those needs change, so can the system
  • Flexibility - built to easily integrate with other technologies and systems
  • Supported by a community, not a company - open source developers are able to pick up and learn a system to maintain and extend it, you would not be locked into one provider for support or further customization--could also be fully supported and maintained by an in-house team
  • Existing frameworks - while customization is at the core of open source, so is reusability of code assets, including features and systems that can easily be dropped in to create a complete system, so you’re not starting from scratch every time
  • New technology - often use the newest technologies, staying up to date on bugs, fixes, and new tech advances
  • You own it - when it is built for you, you own that instance of the software, thus you do not have to pay to use it, only to maintain it (in-house or by a provider)


  • Upfront cost - since they are highly customized, there is more upfront effort to get it off the ground
  • Less "out of the box" features - some features that come with proprietary systems might be expensive to create with open source
  • Less predictable support - support and maintenance only happens as needed, instead of regularly, and is generally less predictable

Zach is a senior digital strategist, combining client-focused business acumen with creative digital ideas. He helps bring on new clients and ensures their success, including Discovery Channel, ESPN, Dick's Sporting Goods, and POLITICO.

More posts by Zach