Making the case for a FOSS CMS

Over the last couple of weeks I have been working on a project to make the case for using an open source CMS for a big project and I thought I’d share some of the work I’ve been doing here – nit sure how helpful it would be for anyone else though!

The big glaring missing element is no mention of WordPress. This was a decision I made for many reasons on this particular project but most of them were internal so not going to re-hash them here – also I have removed any financial data and some of the wilder leaps of faith I had taken!

I think Squiz is a great product but I do wonder whether the term ‘open washing’ I saw recently was aimed at it. It does release its code as GPL though so it made the list.

Obviously there are loads of other systems that could have made this list (I’d have liked to have looked at Plone and Alfesco for sure) but I was under some major time constraints so used what was available on the GCloud Govstore as a starting point.

Open Source Content Management System options assessment 


Adoption of open source web content management software has been growing rapidly in recent years with the public sector a major factor in that uptake.  There is no reason at all that “an open source solution is likely to be the lowest common denominator” with the leading open source CMS products having similar, if not identical, feature-sets to the commercial offerings as well as large scale user communities to support and develop them.

In the United Kingdom, United States and Australia a number of high profile government websites have successfully moved to using openly licensed tools including;

  • The Whitehouse (Drupal)
  • The US Department of Energy (Drupal)
  • The UK Cabinet Office (Drupal)
  • The UK Department of Transport (WordPress)
  • The UK Department of Health (WordPress)
  • Visit Sydney (Squiz)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (Plone)
  • UK Serious Organised Crime Agency (Joomla)

Alongside this in the UK the new Government Digital Service is building a set of bespoke web publishing tools specifically for the needs of the public sector on an open source stack of technologies with the code openly available and with plans to support this as a fully fledged open source project.

What does an open source CMS for the Research Councils look like?

  • Open Source Initiative approved license
  • Would run in a Microsoft environment as well as Linux.
  • Would be extensible.
  • Have a user friendly user interface.
  • Allow publishing in Firefox, Chrome, Safari and IE 8.
  • WAI A compliant.
  • Have an active community.
  • Would have extensive documentation.
  • Must have a strong track record.

Product appraisals

The short-list of CMS selected for analysis was based on their availability to be procured via the GCloud Govstore  as well as their inclusion on the list of  leading products and meeting our criteria for open source.

The wildcard option that sits outside of this analysis is to branch the ‘INSIDE GOVERNMENT’ open source, corporate publishing platform that is currently under iterative development for the Government Digital Service and that publishes content to the beta single domain for Departments  As this is a product still very much in development without a production version having been released this is considered out-of-scope for appraisal but mentioned here for completeness.

Product name:


Product summary: 

Drupal is maintained and developed by a community of 630,000+ users and developers and is one of the most active open source communities. According to W3Tech Drupal currently provides the CMS for 2% of websites in the Alexa One Million (where 70% report no CMS). This makes it the third most popular CMS (regardless of commercial or open source) behind run-away leader WordPress and just behind Joomla.

The first version of the software was released in 2000 and it is now on [stable] version 7.12.

Drupal has in particular been the CMS of choice with the United States Federal Government in recent years with a number of high profile sites launched and more in development.

Current users:

Underlying technology: 

LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL & PHP) but can run on Windows

Available support model(s)

Drupal is supported by a commercial arm, Acquia, offering products, services, and technical support. This includes ‘enterprise’ 24/7 support. Acquia is run by the original founder and current project lead of Drupal and includes a number of the core developers.

Support is also available via a number of high profile suppliers who now offer Drupal in their ‘enterprise’ CMS offerings. These include companies like Capita and Steria as well as many SMEs throughout the UK.

Product roadmap:

Drupal does not publish an official product roadmap.


  • mature product : Drupal has been under active development for more than a decade (first release was in 2000) and is now on its seventh major release. This is longer than many of the leading commercial products (including Sharepoint, Sitecore and SDL Tridion.)
  • large developer community : more than 1,000 developers contributed code to Drupal 7 and there are currently more than 8,000 approved modules available to extend the functionality of the product.
  • very security focused : there is a dedicated security team within the core Drupal developer group and they have worked to ensure that elements like password security meet US Federal Government requirements.
  • easy integration with third-party products : Drupal prides itself on its ability to integrate with enterprise systems and offers various options for ingesting data including; REST, JSON, SOAP and XMLRPC.
  • search engine friendly : Drupal offers a number of options to improve SEO including human readable URLs, RDFa/microdata integration and flexible metadata options.

Product name:


Product summary: 

Umbraco is written in C# and deployed on Microsoft based infrastructure and has recently been the recipient of noticeable support from Microsoft itself being added to their Webmatrix offering as a certified product and being used as the CMS for the Microsoft ASP.NET website itself.

While dotNetNuke remains the leading open source ASP.NET CMS by download numbers Umbraco has picked up a number of high profile users and appears to be the more actively developing product.

Current users:

Underlying technology:

ASP.NET and Windows platform.

Available support model(s):

Umbraco has a number of commercial offerings to offer extensions to the product and technical support to users. These support services provide access to the core developers with guaranteed response to queries within 24 hours, a library of learning resources and two hours of technical consultancy.

Umbraco is also supported by a network of ‘Certified Partners’ of which there are several in the UK. Including the supplier, Systems Associates, offering Umbraco via the Govstore as well as Eduserv.

Product roadmap:

Umbraco makes their development backlog available for public viewing including plans for future releases and bug fixing at


  • familiarity of technology stack : using ASP.NET would make the most of internal development knowledge as there would be minimal learning curve and there is a greater chance of recycling existing infrastructure also.
  • scalability : Umbraco has fast built a reputation as a CMS that is more than capable of powering extremely high traffic websites.
  • integration with enterprise software : an additional benefit of the ASP.NET platform is the ability to easily integrate Umbraco with existing Microsoft products (including Sharepoint) and other enterprise products that are able to integrate with Microsoft products.

Product name:


Product summary:

Squiz themselvers a Supported Open Source solutions company. They release their code under a GPL license but maintain close control of the core code and tie their product in with closely associated professional development and support services.

Squiz are an Australian company that is starting to make in-road into the UK market. In Australia they are mainly associated with providing CMS services to the high education and public sectors. Through their Matrix product they provide a shared web platform for a number of Australian Federal Government agencies.

Current users:

Underlying technology: 

PHP with Oracle or PostgreSQL databases. Runs on any current operating system.

Available support model(s):

Squiz offer the fullest suite of support services of any open source provider on this list (or anywhere else). Their premium Squiz SLA offering includes:

    • 24×7 emergency support
    • single point of contact
    • performing system upgrades
    • maintaining and supporting servers
    • monitoring CMS system and  platform

Product roadmap:

Squiz are transparent regarding development priorities via their blog and forums.


  • support offerings : Squiz offer unparalleled support in the open source world (it is the entire basis of their business case). In many ways it is closer to having a direct relationship with a traditional commercial product but with the benefits of an open license.
  • integration with high specification search offering : Funnelback, the enterprise search engine integrated with Squiz, was originally developed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and has the ability to search across multiple document types and is considered both very fast and accurate.
  • advanced workflow options ‘out of the box’ : unlike most open source CMS Squiz comes with a workflow editor built in (rather than a plug-in or additional module) and is designed to be flexible rather than a one workflow fits all scenario.

WCMS summary of requirements

WYSIWYG authoring
Authoring is done in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get environment
Structured authoring
Supports a number of highly-structured ‘content types’
Online forms
Forms can be created online, validated and stored in a database
Spell checking
Authoring environment must incorporate spell checking
Non-technical authoring
Not be required to use technical knowledge when creating pages
Separation of content and presentation
Styles-based authoring to allow publication in a number of formats
Metadata support
Auto-creation of Metadata
Index support
Be possible to enter index terms (keywords) for each topic created
Content reuse
Ability to publish content from a number of sources
Immediate previews
Preview the draft content from within the authoring environment
Low-bandwidth authoring
Is the CMS effective and usable over slow-speed network
Enforcing accessible content
Ensuring the addition of ‘alt’ tags and other accessibility issues
Global search & replace
Conduct full-text searching across the entire content repository
Consistent interface
Standardised interface for authoring
Cross-platform authoring
Ability to author in any web browser on any operating system
Collaborative authoring
Collaborative creation of content by separated groups of staff
Version control
Ability to roll-back to previous versions
Compare versions
Ability to look at different versions of a page
Date based snapshots
Ability to look up how a given page looked at a given date
Audit trails and activity logs
Comprehensive logs must be kept of all actions performed
Ability to control the approval process before a page is published
Aggregation of content from 3rd parties
Able to include syndicated content from outside providers
Proactive notification
Able to actively notify of errors such as broken links or pages
Automated release & expiry of topics
Content can be published or removed on a given date
Automated archiving of content
Expired content should be moved to an archive area
E-mail notifications
Facility to send notifications, warning and error messages to users
Integration with corporate directory or authentication service
Ability to control access using existing LDAP systems (or equivalent)
Image repository
To allow re-use and consistent use of resources
Document repository
A simple document repository, into which files can be uploaded
Document management capabilities
Beyond a simple ‘document repository’
Allow access by users with a wide range of disabilities
Cross browser support
Pages should be viewable in major web browsers
Valid HTML
HTML validates to web standards
Effective navigation
Contains navigations aids

4 responses to “Making the case for a FOSS CMS”

  1. Hi – great post and a really comprehensive round-up. Not sure if relevant for you but one thing on my list of essential features is integration with CRM and email marketing apps.

  2. weirdly enough I yanked both of them from the requirements 🙂 I do think integration with email tools like Mailchimp is vital but decided that as long as we specified things like decent APIs and RSS we’d find a way to manage that. CRMs make me cry so I try to avoid them!

  3. Maybe slightly different priorities as different organisations, for me CRM at least is important in terms of measuring impact of digital activity on customer journey. I say important, we’re not quite there with integration ourselves yet.

  4. We are miles from that sort of thing – it would be a huge cultural change let alone a technological challenge. One day..maybe 🙂

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