Debunking the Open Source vs. Custom CMS Myth

By Gerald Bauer – Owner/Founder

I have to say – this is one of the most interesting phenomenon I’ve experienced in my 12 years
of doing this. As of late, a debate (or sales tactic) has arisen from the community of
web developers using open source solutions such as WordPress and Drupal (amongst others)
promoting their approach as superior or in the best interest of a client than a custom built website.
While their spin has some merit (albeit an emphasis on ‘some’) – we (along with many other
professional web development firms) couldn’t disagree more adamantly.

The re-occuring pitch we’ve been told (or have read about online) is that ‘using an open source
solution is in the customer’s best interest if in an event their web developer leaves. Maintaining the site or finding someone to support your website will be much easier’.

Since the code-base behind WordPress is standardized (and used by millions) finding someone to
take care of it (again, only in the case of your web developer leaving) should be fairly straight
forward. Right?

Well, it’s not quite that easy. First of all – most websites written using WordPress (just to pick on that) use a combination of the WordPress blogging platform itself and various user-installed plugins. For example, perhaps your website needs a photo gallery. In this case, various WordPress plugins are available to accommodate such a request. The developer simply searches for a plugin that works, selects one that’s ‘good enough’and hits “Install”. Within moments – a photo gallery is available for use on the site. Plugins exist for everything – from photo galleries to video blogs, from eCommerce plugins to MP3 music player plugins. The problem that arises – is that these plugins ALL have to be supported, all have to be manually upgraded, and more often times than not – really don’t do a GREAT job at accomplishing what a client is looking for. In a lot of cases, clients involved in these type of projects often request a plugin to be “customized” to suit their needs.

The use of these plugins (and the fact that WordPress is so commonly used, again – by millions) leads
me to my second and more disconcerting point – of security. The WordPress platform and its host of
plugins are exploited by the hacking community, almost daily.

Another example directly related to JB Systems’ involvement pertains to a Wisconsin-based organization called CESA. For over three years, and using two separate developers / firms, they failed in launching a website responsible for promoting their 3-5 annual events (large scale, 300+ attendees type of events). This ‘platform’ was supposed to allow them easy access to edit all of their content, prepare events and all marketing materials for each event, allow registrations to be taken online, allow speakers to upload their presentations, and various other tasks. It was never finished. The site, as it stands in this condition, can be found here:  It only does about 70% of what they needed it to do, and these events represent a large facet of their organization’s budget.

We have just been hired to rebuild the entire platform. The previous developers proposed using ‘open source’ tools such as WordPress and a now commercial (but previously was open source) product called RegOnline ( In short, the project never achieved what the clients wanted and the work required to customize WordPress to handle what they needed it to do and to integrate WordPress and this stand-alone product, was a misguided strategy and cost them 3 years and a substantial amount of money. We’ve quoted a solution for them that was not necessarily the most cost-effective (as their previous solution was) but we are guaranteeing a finished, working product within a 6 month window – all custom build and designed to their specifications. They can’t wait to get started.

Lastly, I’d like to throw in some 3rd party links to various sources reaffirming our standpoint at JB Systems. A brief summary is included with each one:

1) SitePoint – most notable resource, providing continuing education to web developers across the world:

2) WordPress – their own website includes various posts pertaining to the topic at hand:

3) A great article here by another web development company affirms our standpoint nicely:

Although I’ve provided a great deal of information defending our position, I’d like to note we are not so-called ‘haters’ of WordPress and open source solutions. In fact, we use WordPress for our own blog (to do EXACTLY what WordPress was designed to do – BLOG). Using WordPress has often (in the past) been a great solution for small companies and organizations to host a website and in some cases have it serve as their primary website. From time to time, we at JB Systems run into clients with very small budgets and recommend WordPress as an option. But lately – we’re seeing WordPress solutions being sold for as much (if not more) than a custom tailored site. Due to the various reasons outlined above, and in the 3 external links I provided, there are ample reasons why large corporations and successful companies have NOT adopted this platform as their own. It is my own personal opinion that certain developers have adopted this strategy in order to maximize their profitability as very little custom development is needed to set up a WordPress site (in business lingo –  we don’t need to hire skilled developers or programmers to do what we do).

I would like to note that simply because our solution is not open-source, it doesn’t mean you can never work with another firm to work on it. We code our projects to a very high (and very human readable) standard – using open source (yup, I said it) technologies such as PHP and MySQL. These are the very two technologies that power BOTH WordPress and Joomla. We have partnered with our local universities and technical colleges (I sit on their programming advisory council in fact) and can attest that our projects could easily be maintained by anyone with an intermediate skill of programming in PHP (or by another PHP-based web development firm, of which there are hundreds). There are indeed some development firms whose products are “locked down” and if a client chooses to go elsewhere, they don’t get to take their website with them. That is simply not the case with JB Systems.

If all web developers used an open-source platform, how would companies innovate to create better, more engaging, or unique experiences for people visiting their site?

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