There’s a lot to be said for open source software. Distributing source code anyone can tinker with opens opportunities for collaboration and innovation. Adopters can use it virtually any way they choose, making fixes and enhancements on their own schedules. And by definition, it’s free of charge.
No wonder open source content management systems (CMSs) power countless websites. While you’ll find dozens of open source CMS solutions available, the big three remain WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla. Great college and university websites have been built on each.
But open source has its issues, some of which can be especially vexing for higher education institutions. If you’re weighing an open source CMS against a commercial solution like OU Campus™, consider these challenges:
Once you decide on an open source CMS, you’re going to need someone (or, more likely, a team) to configure and maintain it. Hiring new employees, bringing on contractors, or shifting attention from other projects all carry costs, often significant.
Staffing plans need to account for backup and continuity. There’s always risk in having one developer chiefly responsible for an open source system, and the more customized your implementation, the greater this risk becomes. If your developer falls sick or changes jobs, you could be left scrambling.
Keep in mind, too, that web developers aren’t necessarily software developers—some challenges may be beyond their grasp.
Open source CMSs—particularly more complex systems like Drupal—come with a learning curve. If you’re headed down this route, you should account for time required to bring existing staff up to speed or bring on new hires.
There’s strong demand for developers who know the ins and outs of specific open source systems. You’ll likely face tight competition for experts in your open source CMS of choice, and if you choose to train your own, you may end up losing them to another employer.
Also, be aware that different systems make different demands on the generally non-technical staff who’ll manage your website’s content. Open source CMS interfaces can be customized and simplified, but the out-of-the-box setups many sites use aren’t especially intuitive. Someone needs to train front-line users and remain available to address their questions.
Finding answers to open source CMS questions can be a challenge for users and developers alike. By nature, open source systems grow and evolve organically—for any given issue, there could be dozens of competing solutions.
Developers like solving problems, but this lack of authoritative answers can get frustrating, especially on a tight timeline. It’s not always practical to wade through discussion boards or independently evaluate different modules or plugins.
In addition, keep in mind that while core open source systems are free, specific modules and plugins may come with licensing costs. They also may present compatibility issues that in-house teams will need to research and resolve.
Staffing and support considerations are especially important on this front. With an open source system, your team is completely responsible for evaluating security threats, installing updates and patches, and keeping your data and public web presence safe.
We’ve seen open source CMS implementations fall far behind on software updates, leaving them exposed. Sometimes the problem stems from extensive customizations that aren’t compatible with new versions, but more often than not, development teams simply can’t keep up. Before you know it, you’re at risk.
Some argue that open source systems are inherently more vulnerable than commercial alternatives—when anyone sees the source code, it’s easier to exploit. Open source advocates counter that with a whole community minding the code, problems get spotted and fixed more quickly. Regardless, open source security requires attention every day.
Or, rather, lack thereof—open source CMSs offer a vast array of choices to meet virtually any need. You’ll find modules that run blogs and message boards, add e-commerce functionality, manage social media, post multimedia galleries, and so on.
What you generally won’t find are solutions aimed specifically at higher education, addressing needs like catalogs, faculty directories, campus maps, net price calculators, or integration with student information systems.
Look at it this way: An open source CMS is like a machine engine. You can use it to power a scooter, a tractor, a car, a boat, or even a plane (if you’re brave enough), but determining exactly what you need and building the machine your engine will run is totally up to you. It can be a daunting task, especially if you have a bunch of other machines to build, too.
OU Campus and the services behind it were designed to take this work off your plate and to deliver a CMS tailor-made for colleges and universities. With OU Campus, you don’t just get a system—you get a partner.