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Open source vs proprietary software

Open Source vs Proprietary for Government Websites

We frequently have the opportunity to speak with website stakeholders within state and local government, and quite often, essential questions emerge concerning open source vs. proprietary web solutions. 

Stakeholders want to know:

  • What are the advantages of open-source software?
  • What’s meant by vendor lock-in?
  • Is open source secure?
  • Is open-source software free?
  • What about disadvantages?

As open-source enthusiasts and active members of the Drupal Community, we love questions that drive a greater understanding of what open source is all about.

At Promet Source, we’re avid open-source advocates, for reasons that include the benefits of collective brainpower, tighter security, and cost efficiency. Our conviction is one that’s largely shared by the Federal Government

But the fact is, the concept of open source is not always easy to get one’s arm around. It does not fit neatly into the standard, competitive business model in which the secret sauce of solutions developed for purposes of making a profit are available only to paying customers. 

Open-source code is freely available and customizable. In the case of Drupal, which is an absolute prime example of open source, there’s a worldwide community of 1 million members—100,000 of whom are actively supporting each other, creating documentation, networking, monitoring for security vulnerabilities, and building freely available modules in response to constantly evolving market needs and expectations. 

Proprietary software, on the other hand, is owned by the individual or company that developed it. There are fees associated with purchasing it, along with monthly or annual licensing fees. 

While cost savings is a huge factor in the open source vs. proprietary conversation, value often proves to be an even greater consideration. Let’s unpack the essential advantages.

Read: Open Source is a Force for Good Government


Advantages of Open Source

As an open-source CMS, Drupal sites benefit from the vast, collective brainpower of a community whose contributions are rigorously curated. 

This translates into access to ongoing innovation in the form of plugins, modules, security patches, as well as a robust global community of developers. In the current market, in which tech talent is in such high demand, it’s difficult to even to quantify the value of constant innovation that’s just there for the taking. 

Compare this dynamic to that which exists within proprietary systems which do their best to attract and retain a small talent pool. 

That said, the open-source vs proprietary decision can be a tough one. We get it. Companies that offer proprietary CMS solutions targeted toward state and local governments have aggressive marketing campaigns, with compelling arguments concerning the superiority of their solutions.

We’re highly familiar with these solutions because we’ve been called in on numerous occasions to migrate government websites that were previously developed on proprietary software, over to an open-source Drupal CMS. 

The result following the migration to Drupal:

  • Previously unseen levels of flexibility
  • Huge cost savings
  • And the freedom to direct the CMS where it needed to go well into the future – no longer hostage to the vendor’s roadmap for upgrades and security fixes.


What is Vendor Lock-In?

Flexibility is now an essential success factor, and stakeholders who have found themselves dependent upon the constraints of the licensing contract with the vendor that developed their CMS can be at a significant disadvantage.  

Vendor Lock-In is an inherent byproduct of a site built with proprietary software. The vendor owns the code to the site and is in control of all updates and security fixes.  

Owners of websites that are built on proprietary software are at the mercy of the particular vendor’s roadmap, pricing structure, business decisions, and annual licensing fees. If for any reason at all, clients want to move in another direction, they're dependent upon the vendor to make that happen. 

Let’s contrast this kind of scenario with a site that’s built on an open-source Drupal CMS. If the vendor relationship takes an unfortunate turn, or support does not prove to be up to par, or the vendor’s UI/IX team is out of alignment with evolving constituent expectations for the site, there are countless other Drupal shops and Drupal developers with the expertise to get into the code and move the site in a new direction.

A considerable courtship and honeymoon phase nearly always accompanies start of a website development relationships—full of big, new expectations and possibilities. A few years, or several years in, people and priorities may change.

With proprietary software, there is no exit strategy.

Of course, no one wants to think about a potential laundry list of mitigating factors, that could sour a relationship, but it is just good business to do so. Here at Promet Source, as well as among any Drupal developer, there is essentially a prenup built into all development and support agreements. 


Is Open Source Secure?

For some, the concept of open-source security can feel a bit counterintuitive. The term “open” is not equated with secure. If the code is readily accessible what kinds of guard rails are in place. Is open source easily hacked? 

Fact is, security is an essential advantage of open source.

Open-source software allows for thorough auditing of the code for purposes of detecting potential security threats. Site owners can modify the code as they see fit—whether to enhance security or customize a site to meet their specific needs. 

The Drupal community is constantly monitoring for and alerting Drupal support partners to security threats, and users are thoroughly empowered on their own to shore up any vulnerabilities that they detect. 

For a number of reasons open-source vulnerabilities tend to get detected a lot sooner, and fixes happen faster than with proprietary software. 

Far fewer eyes are on proprietary projects, and resources are not necessarily available to fix vulnerabilities as they are detected. 


Is Open Source Software Free?

The answer to this question is a definitive "yes, but …"

Open-source software is freely available, the code base can be inspected, modified or enhanced, and there are no licensing fees associated with its use.

Proprietary software, on the other hand, is owned and managed by an organization that holds exclusive rights to the source code. There are licensing fees associated with use of proprietary software, which covers scheduled upgrades. 

However, the licensing fees associated with proprietary software are intended to cover updates and scheduled maintenance. Open-source sites also need to be monitored and maintained, and that can be in the form of support relationships or dedicated, in-house expertise.

While open source tends to be considerably more cost effective than proprietary solutions, it’s essential to keep the concept of “free” in perspective. There are costs associated with outside support agreements, but the key is that open-source site owners have the freedom to choose from among a wide range of Drupal support options, which tend to be vastly more cost effective and value added than licensing contracts for proprietary software.  

The fact that support relationships are not locked in means that Drupal support providers have every incentive to bring their A-Game every day to the support relationship. On the other hand, the incentive for stellar service in a locked-in relationship with a proprietary software provider is not something that needs to be proven with every interaction.


Why do some opt for proprietary solutions over Open Source?

Companies that specialize in proprietary CMS solutions often devote hefty sales and marketing budgets toward convincing prospects that Open Source solutions are laden with uncertainties and are not as reliable as  proprietary options. Proprietary solutions offer the appearance of predictability, with purchasing costs and licensing fees clearly spelled out.

Viewed from another angle, predictability equates to vendor lock-in.

Ultimately, high-stakes web solutions benefit from the opportunity for innovation, flexibility, and vendors that bring their A Game to every interaction.  

Looking to continue the conversation or share your thoughts and concerns on Open Source? Let's talk! 


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