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How to Decide Between an Open Source or a Proprietary Community Platform

Written by Liam O'Malley on May 23, 2017 at 8:30 AM
How to decide between open source and proprietary community platforms

When designing your organization’s website and community, you need to think about what type of platform you want to build it on—in other words, do you want to build it on open source tools, like Wordpress or Joomla, or do you want to go with a proprietary source offered by a software as a service (SaaS) company? It’s an important decision to make. It’s also a question I recently got from a prospective client. Although they found some proprietary solutions they liked, they were concerned about “vendor lock-in” and wanted to only seriously consider open source options. Talking with them about how to choose—open source or proprietary—and what concerns they had made me realize there are many people with questions on this topic who don’t have a strong idea for the pros and cons of either system.

Let’s go through a few common worries people have regarding proprietary systems:

1. Stuck with the vendor

This is a very common concern when people are thinking of purchasing expensive software for their organization—that they’ll become dependent on the new platform and now they’ll be stuck with that particular vendor for everything. What happens if it turns out you don’t like the vendor, product or their customer support?

There is some truth in this idea, that you will have to work with that vendor to make changes or integrate certain data. But they aren’t the only vendor you can work with—depending on your needs, you might be able to work with a partner instead.

So when deciding if you want to work with a vendor, it’s important to look at their partner list. Do they partner with companies you’re familiar with or use already? Or think would be helpful in the future? Many vendors work hard to make integrations easy between their platform and complementary platforms, which gives you more flexibility and choice than you might otherwise realize you have.

2. If you’re unsatisfied, you can’t move your site to another host or developer

Again, this isn’t an easy ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

First, many people host their proprietary platforms on cloud—or remote—servers, such as Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud. Although it’s hard to move from one host to another, if the platform is hosted in such large and reliable places, there aren’t many reasons to worry.

Second, it’s important for you to understand how the SaaS model of operating works —when you buy into a SaaS product, all the customers run on the same exact code base. Generally, that means no custom development, which can be a con for some people. But the pros are that your site always runs on the latest and greatest version of the product, you never have to take it through an ‘upgrade’ process, and you never end up in a hole of customizations.

Although many organizations see customization as a good thing—why not build exactly what you envision?—that freedom can often lead to customers getting locked into the vendor they work with and the platform they built. After spending so much time, money and energy on customizations, after a certain point it becomes very difficult to scrap that project and start over—you’re still stuck with a behemoth of your own creation.

Just because a SaaS company doesn’t generally build customizations, they do listen to what their customers say and incorporate much of that feedback into upgrades. So don’t worry—you will be heard. Most SaaS companies only create customizations if it looks like an upgrade most of their customers would also benefit from.

3. You don’t truly own your site and, if you leave the vendor, you have to start over from scratch

This is partly true, but would be true no matter where you built your system—if you don’t like the foundation you started with, you’ll have to start all over again when you find a new foundation to build on.

Whether you are using open source software or not is irrelevant to this concern, because moving from any platform to another one is going to require some redesign effort as well as a content migration process. Content migration is a necessarily evil in any website project. With regards to redesign efforts, be sure to consider whether any platform you choose—open source or not—is designed with universal standards, such as Bootstrap, in mind. You want a commonly used framework across the web and one that will be easily adaptable to any platform.

When deciding where to build your site, you need to ask yourself this very crucial question—will you own the data? If you work with a vendor where this is true, then you can migrate that data if you ever decide to move to a new system. If they own the data, then you will have to truly start over from scratch.

Another look at proprietary systems

I have one more piece of advice that might help you in your decision making process. One benefit I see in taking another look at proprietary systems is that they’re built specifically to work for people in your industry. Whether you’re an association looking for a member community, or a B2B SaaS company looking for a customer support community, the proprietary options you’re looking at are tailored for your specific industry.

If you go with one of those options, it does come with some potential drawbacks (as mentioned above), but it also comes with some pretty big pluses—you’ll never have to worry about hosting, about email deliverability, viruses, software upgrades or security vulnerabilities. A team of professionals is looking out for you and every single one of their customers. Wordpress and Joomla have a vast network of developers since they’re so popular, but that popularity also leaves them an obvious target to malicious attacks. When you sign up with a SaaS company, part of your monthly fee goes towards making sure everything runs smoothly and that your platform is always up to date and secure.

At the end of your decision making process, you might decide that open source is, in fact, the best way for you to go. There is nothing wrong with this decision, provided you have done your due diligence—there are many ways of building an excellent community site using open source options.

On the other hand, if you decide that the best option is proprietary, but are worried about things like “vendor lock in,” I hope you take the points above to heart and research them more thoroughly. You may be surprised by how flexible and powerful proprietary systems can be.

Download your copy of Higher Logic's 2016 online community benchmarking study.

Topics: B2B Communities, Associations, Online Community Software

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