Is open-source software like WordPress and Magento really free?
Having been in the web industry since it was practically born this is a common question and struggle for people since the first release of open source website platforms in the ’90s. Why the struggle people ask? Well, the real answer is it’s complicated and changes over time as the software industry matures; first, let’s look at history a bit.
What is open source?
Open-source software (OSS) is software with its source code made available with a license in which the copyright holder provides the rights to study, change, and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose. Open-source software is quite often developed in a collaborative public manner. Overall a community of independent thinkers and developers all contribute to the development of the software which is made publicly available for free to people that want to use it.
In the early 1990s, web software started to take root in both open source and commercial paid models; both being very early simple types of software. As time has progressed many open source communities have cropped up around website content management systems CMS and ecommerce systems like WordPress & Magento. The true strength behind an open-source platform is not just the community making it better over time but an organization that helps direct third party plugins and support for them.
If anyone has ever used an open-source platform they may have experienced a journey that started with the notion of FREE. Oh, joy what a concept I can get this software for free and look at all these plugins people have written for it that will interact with social media, email marketing systems, credit card processors, point of sales systems…and just about any other software or service we can think of.
So a trusted website developer you hired recommended it and you built your site on it. Time passes and the reality starts to set in. Either no one is updating your free software over time or when they do one update to a plugin it breaks other parts of the site or due to lack of updates your site is compromised. This starts to emulate a game of web development wack-a-mole; becoming far from free.
Now the real cost of open source enters your life. Who is going to fix this and how much is it going to cost me every time some software is updated or not updated? The true reality is the software was free but the support to keep your site glued together and functioning is far from free.
A typical hacked WordPress site that comes our way from a new client can take 8+ hours for us to clean up, update and lockdown. That my friends are a $1000 web development invoice; drastically changing the landscape of what you called free in the beginning. Then the big question becomes when/if this happens again what is it going to cost you next time? If it’s not tended to; there will be the next time.
Another great example of how free gets shattered in this model is the plugin dilemma. The base open source CMS or eCommerce system is written and directed by an organized group. The plugins are all built by independent developers trying to write cool add-ons for your site. The biggest issues with this are the plugin developers; many have little to no support and only come out with a couple of versions and never update it again. If they are doing it for free what is their incentive to mature their plugins or answer support questions? Now you have built your site on a plugin someone most likely wrote in their basement and abandoned development on. When the plugins break it is generally very little to no support; so now you are paying a web developer good money per hour to find out why someone else’s free software broke on your site.
Not to pick on WordPress because we do like the platform and develop many sites using it; however, there are many moving parts to consider to keep a WordPress site operational and not vulnerable to attack or compromise. At Infront we only use plugins for our client sites that we know are mature products and that is secure. We also have a fully managed WordPress hosting offering which feels like an insurance plan to our customers. For $99/month we completely manage the WordPress open-source software and plugins to make sure they are staying up to date each month. They are all done manually by one of our team members to reduce the risk of automatic updates breaking parts of the site.
What happens if your site gets compromised or an update breaks your site when you have this service with us? We will fix it at no charge! We will back out plugin updates if they break the site and even clean up the site if it is hacked or compromised by malware.
The reality is no website software is truly free. It is important to never assume that your site can simply exist without someone updating the software and this is an expense. There are many avenues to consider when picking a platform and web development company like how much experience do they have in the platforms, how will they support you after launch, does your site need customization and how will that affect the ongoing maintenance.
All in all, do your due diligence on the platform and company you choose to work with – your future website budget and success depend on it!