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Open source and website design: Caveat emptor

Using open source software to redesign or create a website can be beneficial to resource-strapped SMBs, but caveat emptor -- there are hidden costs.

Using open source software (OSS) to create or redesign a website should be a no-brainer, right? Maybe, maybe not.

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True, open source programs are free, freely distributed and more secure than proprietary ones. But, as Romans used to say, caveat emptor. OSS has as many downsides as upsides, a reality that typically cash-strapped, resource-challenged small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) need to research before paying for an OSS-based Website.

Before starting any Website project, assess the benefits and risks of open source versus proprietary software. Key issues to consider are reliability, cost of development and support versus savings in license fees, compatibility, support and the benefits of building versus buying.


There's a fairly common belief (fostered by its proponents) that OSS is more reliable than proprietary alternatives. The belief is half-true. Linux applications, for example, will reliably run on older computers. However, some OSS programs are less reliable, and many are no better or worse than any Windows-based product.

  • Look for OSS products that have been around for a long time and have a solid community of customers and developers.
  • Check OSS Websites for information that may be useful about Web servers, content management systems and other Web tools you may need for your project.

Cost of development and support versus savings in license fees

OSS programs are free, but the development and support are not. You need to determine whether paying a Web developer to create and maintain a customized OSS-based Website is more or less beneficial than paying a developer to use a proprietary solution. For many companies, the deciding factor is quality of support.

While support is always available in the open source world, it is not always as user-friendly, as it tends to be aimed at developers, not end users. Still, the more popular the application, the more likely you'll find a support infrastructure as professional as any offered for a proprietary solution. Vendors and providers will offer service-level agreements, 24/7 support, support packages, and help desk services -- none of which will be free, of course.

Many SMBs will find that the cost of supporting their Website is offset by not having to pay for licensing fees.


Getting open source programs to work with one another can be an expensive challenge because many are not plug-and-play and require programming. If you're on a tight budget and don't have in-house IT expertise, you'll be better off choosing a proprietary solution that offers Web compatibility with your back-end office programs.

Build or buy

As with any technology project, you can either build or buy. OSS is ideal for building because:

  • It's easier to customize than proprietary software. The source code is freely available and can be adapted to fit the customer's need like a glove. But it's probably better to create modules instead of modifying the core application. If you modify the core, you will be off on the expensive upgrade path.
  • OSS sites are developed with tools that prevent you from being locked into specific vendors or software packages.
  • OSS comes with modular, reusable components.

Remember, too, that unless you're developing a pure-play, completely Web-based business, you probably don't need to create anything terribly unique. You can use proven, open source technologies that you don't have to develop and maintain. The more code you develop from scratch, the more you'll have to maintain. Most budget-constrained SMBs use OSS because it leaves them more money for services and for customizing the software to their specific needs.

Everybody knows that building software can be expensive. But buying a product can be even more costly, especially if you chose a vendor that delivers a flaw-ridden tool it can't fix.

Herman Mehling is a freelance writer based in San Anselmo, Calif. He can be reached at [email protected].

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