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Open-Source CMS vs Custom CMS

I’ve read a lot of debate in the past about the value of using open-source content management systems (CMS) compared with that of a custom-built CMS that is bespoke to the website in question. The truth is, there are advantages to both of them, depending on the requirements and system needed, so there is no definite answer to which is ‘best’.

If you approach a company (or one approaches you) regarding the development of a website, the chances are it is going to be involving a content management system. Practically nobody uses static web files anymore when building a website, due to the bad scalability and flexibiility, which is why the CMS became an ideal solution – but here are a couple of points to consider before saying ‘yes’ to a web company.


Having a website is great, and it’s even better if it’s your first one. Once the site is launched you may presume nothing else will need to be changed as you discussed the requirements fully with your developer – but that’s (almost) never true. Using a bespoke CMS means you are usually locked in with the web company should anything need to be changed, even for little things such as updating a home page image, so it is important to think ahead before proceeding with a project.

The value of an open-source content management system means that you can usually complete the changes yourself, and if not, there are hundreds of support forums and people available to help you along your way.


As mentioned with static websites, the biggest problem is often when you wish to improve the functionality or add additional components to an existing page or website, and this can often be a difficult aspect with bespoke systems.

As an example, you may decide that you wish to have a contact form on your website, that allows visiting users to send you an enquiry without having to email directly. With an open-source CMS, such as WordPress, the process of this is very fast, as it can be done efficiently and securely through the use of plugins. However, with a custom CMS you will often have to go back to the original web agency, who will then quote for the work, and come back to you with a date and price for completion – both of which you should want to avoid.


From experience, most web companies that develop using custom content management systems often try to get you involved in ongoing maintenance contracts, or simply don’t provide the client with the neccasary details to pass on to another company to use (such as FTP and CMS login details). This is bad for two reasons, firstly; you are tied to the original company for any changes to be made (as above), or worst still, you may lose contact with the company who developed the website and won’t be able to get any changes made at all in the future.

A large aspect of running a succesful business is being efficent with money, so you shouldn’t want to be paying ongoing contracts or one-off charges where they are simply not neccasary. If the worst comes to worst and you can’t count on the original company to make changes (or you don’t want to go back to them), this is potentially going to cost you a lot more money as the simplest solution for a new company would be to rebuild the website entirely (using an open-source content management system, I would hope).

Not all custom CMS are bad – as they may be needed in some cases where an open-source solution doesn’t do the job in hand. But for 5 or 10 page websites for a standard business, or websites without the need for bespoke solutions, there is simply no need to restrict somebody or cause potential issues in the future.

PushON develop search engine friendly websites with WordPress, Drupal and Magento – all of which are open-source content management systems with a whole heap of support online. We obviously would like our clients to come back to us should they need any further developments or help with their systems, but the option is there for them to control their website – as after all, it is their website.

To find out how PushON research & analysis services can give your company a competitive online edge, simply call 0844 967 0565 or contact us via our form.

  • gun safe

    I’m one of those people looking to build a website for my small business. You lean largely towards open source systems in this article – since I’m only going to be needing maybe 10 pages at most, do you reckon I should use an open source CMS? Who should use custom CMS?

  • Kieron Hughes

    I do lean largely towards open source systems, and there are a lot of reasons for that (some of which are covered above).

    I think the potential mistake people make when chosing a CMS is that they only think about the current requirements, and not about the future. Even if you have no plans to extend the functionality at the moment, that isn’t to say you won’t want to add new features in the future.

    Even if your website is only going to be 10 pages at most, I think it would be the right choice to go for an open source platform – such as WordPress.

    You can create the pages/functionality you need, and in the future, there is the basis in place for scalability should you need to add new features.

    Hope that helps.

  • Doug

    I don’t like open source CMS’s. Simply because almost every time the client wants and needs something specific. Open source CMS’s, although powerful, are often over simplified. When you need to make a certain change, the option may not be there. If you want to expand your websites functionality, you may have already reached the ceiling.

    If someone wanted a blog, i would use wordpress. If someone wanted a forum, i would use vbulletin. If someone wanted just plain content, wordpress.

    For everthing else i use the cms I made myself

    I never have to worry about what the client wants, and although its fuly customised, its still streamlined so its cheaper and quick to produce.

    • Simon Wharton

      The problem there is that the client is then entirely dependent on you. Which is great for you and not so great for the client. If you fall under a bus, the client finds themselves in a position where they have a solution that is dificult to maintain. If you need some custom functionality on an open source product you can write and release it into the wild. Everyone wins.

  • farayi

    I think Simon is right. What happens when the company that has developed their own cms goes under.
    That does happen a lot.

    Open source is a stating point you then develop the solution to the clients` specifics so in the event that you are no longer able to do the work the client can get another developer and not struggle.

  • Nicasi

    For small sites it’s reasonable to use a small custom cms, if the code is well documented it doesn’t take much time to grasp so the dependency on one developer isn’t that much of an issue here.

    Custom plugins or custom written code embeded in an open source cms can be a bigger pain, certainly compared to a small and well written custom cms.

    Choose the right tool for the job.

  • Lee

    I find the main problem with open-source CMS is that they are commonly used by underskilled developers who offer ‘web design’ services which are pretty formulaic and don’t really address the underlying strategic needs of the client.

    Building a website is easy for those with little or no understanding of marketing / strategy.

    Building a website which can truly address a specific business need and create genuinely useful customer experience can take a vast amount of planning and custom development.

    Lots of companies appear to be shoe-horned into open source solutions by developers who convince the client that open-source is best because it is ‘cheaper’ and ‘safer’.

    In my experience ‘cheap’ and ‘safe’ often results in ‘unprofessional’ and ‘mediocre’.

    • Simon Wharton

      I take your point but I don’t think really think it’s that relevant. There are many ways a numpty can bang up a website. Stick one in front of Dreamweaver and theyll be able to cobble something together. Open Source CMS can be used well or it can be used poorly. It’s not the tool, its the craftsmen that uses them.

  • Ken

    Unfortunately, even though I kinda regret this direction, open source CMS are leading the way, if you don’t offer them, you will loose business. Reason being is that everyone is offering cheaper web sites and clients are not well educated to know the difference, if a site looks good to a client, has no errors and it’s easy to use then it’s a winner! I always had my own custom CMS, which grew into a sophisticated, minimal code, modularized based system that my team of developers use, it’s great for some as I can add any custom feature they want, but getting new developers to work on it is costly as I have to train them and there are no guarantees that I will keep them… Today from a business point of view, open source CMS is a star! I can make more sites, I can find developers quickly and I can compete better plus avoid all the hassles with versions, testing, etc… as it’s all being taken care of from a massive community which I can never compete with. So I have to start introducing “Express” packages with open source CMS and see how they do, but I’m guessing they’ll do great!

  • Jafar

    Open source has crappy login/register forms and bad administration UI. These are very important for the overall user experience.

    Saying a client doesn’t know better is not a good excuse. Drupal would be my pick but it is too slow, gets random spam, has bad admin UI, and a crappy login.

  • Marie

    A custom CMS should be the CLIENT’s CMS, built in a way that is user-friendly enough for the client to use it herself.

    If your CMS is so complicated that the client needs to get back to you for maintenance. Well… you might as well create a static website and get them on a maintenance contract (which they’d need anyway).

    Open-source is great if the client wants something cheap, quick and is not too demanding in terms of graphics design. The big problem arise for example when a client absolutely want a WordPress website but has a graphics designer working on it who doesn’t want his creativity to be constrained. In the end, you would need to come up with a bespoke theme which might cost as much to implement as a custom CMS or a static website + maintenance contract.

    • John

      I completely agree with Marie.

  • Bryan Andrade

    Why does a custom CMS have to be difficult to maintain? If a company hires a skilled PHP programmer to develop a custom CMS that addresses a business-critical need, then it is expected that if the company were to switch PHP programmers, it would need to hire another skilled programmer that is fluent in PHP. A custom CMS would only be “complicated” to someone who cannot understand code easily.
    Most open-source content management systems do not address the specific needs of business-critical applications without major overhauls, although open-source solutions are ideal for companies that only require a simple blog or your typical “about us” “contact us” website.
    It really depends on what tier the client is in and how much their site actually matters.

    • Simon Wharton

      I couldnt disagree more with your assessment. I can only gather that it must be some time since you used a CMS like Drupal, even WordPress. They are significantly more powerful than you suggest. Also your assertion that a company only needs to employ another skilled programmer lacks a considered view as to the reality of the situation. All too often, the code becomes overly personalised without reference to best practice. And its one person as opposed to the vast global community that supports and enhances open source in a managed manner

      • John

        Yes they are powerful but the point is “do we need them”? Nuclear bombs are powerful – do we need them?

        Point is when a task can be managed easily with a bespoke solution, why complicate it using Drupal or any other CMS? Just because you do not have your own CMS or you’ve spent years on Drupal does not mean you use it in every project.

    • John

      I completely agree with Bryan. A CMS is all about providing tools and an easy-to-use interface for a non-technical client to manage his/her website.

      What is in it to maintain for a non-technical person? If somebody does not understand code then it does not matter if the CMS is open-source or bespoke. He will always need services of a technical person to modify his website.

      Bespoke offers more security, flexibility and ease of use. Why install thousands of scripts when you can handle it with a dozen of files?

      WordPress is good for just one thing – Blogging, that is it.

  • Bryan Andrade

    I have actually used both drupal and WordPress within the last week. Their power as an open-source CMS lies in their ability to be deployed quickly and easily, however, making them do anything useful still requires a skilled programmer.
    If your reality is that code is overly programmed and has no reference to best practice, then what does that say about your “skilled programmer?”

  • Bryan Andrade

    I made a typo in my last response. I meant to say “overly personalised.” Anyway, Simon, I feel that there is truth in your view because most code probably DOES become too personalised, and is not well-written. This is why most people probably SHOULD use an open-source CMS as a starting-point for creating a web application.
    However, for certain needs there is no replacement for a well-written custom application, and when recommending a solution to a client, it is always important to evaluate their needs rather than believing that open-source is always the best. I find that open-source is the best in the simplest of cases.

  • WPS

    You will probably find that most “designer” shops use an open source system (and try and adapt their client to the system) and most “developer” shops (with strong developers) use their own cms.

    - because developers can create and build it,
    - they know 100% of the code base (that’s something that I don’t think anyone can claim with any open source system),
    - they have control of future updates to the system (and don’t just throw their hands up in the air when an update to an open source system breaks something and they say – we’ll just have to wait for an update to which should fix it, or something changes in the way something is done and the client says WTF – oh yeah says the web person, that’s been updated – it’s out of our hands)
    - IF written properly, a custom system is going to be more secure then an open source as the code base is not readily available to download and explore,
    - With open source system you usually have to adapt the client the system and tell them that this is the way it is (it’s good, we use it).

    I think someone said above that the open source systems are built/tested by 100′s of developers – that’s a lot of fingers of varying levels in the pie…

    How can you guarantee your work (the site) to a paying client that you have NO control over, now or in the future?

    My 2 cents. Here we go…

  • John

    Using open-source solution is an excuse when you don’t have your own CMS. Every programmer will prefer a bespoke solution as it is easy to code, maintain and is more secure than an open-source CMS.

    Why install thousands of files when you can provide a light-weight, fast and more secure solution with a bespoke CMS.

    My vote goes to bespoke – more secure, more flexible and more fast solution as compared to CMS.

    Ask your programming team for a bespoke solution!