Seven Criteria for Evaluating Open-Source Content Management Systems

If you're new to open-source CMSes, here are some guidelines to help you find the best one for your project.

Using a content management system (CMS) to manage a Web site used to be a luxury within the reach of only those who had the technical resources to build a custom solution or the financial resources to afford a proprietary one. In recent years, numerous pre-built open-source CMSes have emerged as viable alternatives to costly proprietary products or custom-built solutions.

Cost savings are not the only reason why open-source CMSes are gaining in popularity. Unlike proprietary products, the source code for open-source CMSes is freely available so it is possible to customize the CMS to match your project's requirements. Customized versions also can be redistributed according to the terms of their licenses. In addition, the benefit of free technical support provided by the Open Source community cannot be discounted.

Development and long-term maintenance costs of a custom-built CMS can be high. Keeping up with new requirements or security issues can take a lot of time and effort. Open-source CMSes combine the advantages of the proprietary and custom-built approaches--a pre-built CMS that is ready to use but can be customized if needed.

Choosing an Open-Source CMS

In his April 2005 column, Linux Journal columnist Reuven Lerner observed:

It used to be that you needed to search high and low for an open-source application that would suit your needs. Nowadays, it still takes time to find the right application, but that's because you need to sort through so many bad or inappropriate ones before finding the one that is right for you.

Choosing a pre-built CMS from the large number of alternatives can be an overwhelming task. They come in several shapes and sizes, employing different platforms, programming languages and content management approaches. Complicating the decision-making process, open-source CMS projects are at varying stages of development, from stable and reliable applications to cutting-edge experiments. How do you decide which one is right for you?

The CMS Matrix (see Resources) is a community-maintained list of over 300 CMSes, both proprietary and open source. This list may not be comprehensive, but it is a good place to start. This Web site makes it easy to review CMS details such as system requirements, availability of technical support, ease of use, performance, security, interoperability, flexibility and commerce. It also features a convenient matrix to conduct a side-by-side comparison of up to 10 CMSes at a time. But you still need to decide which ones to compare and evaluate. I use the following seven criteria to evaluate potential CMS candidates:

  1. Web application platform

  2. Software license

  3. Stability and development activity

  4. User community

  5. Documentation and source code

  6. Web standards, accessibility

  7. Suitability and usability

Web Application Platform

Most CMSes use a database, at least one programming language and a Web server. If you have experience with a particular programming language, database or Web server, you might want to consider an open-source CMS that uses those components. If you plan to customize the CMS, familiarity with the various components used by the CMS is especially beneficial.

If you do not have a preference or technical limitations, consider CMSes built using the popular open-source LAMP platform. The first three letters in LAMP stands for the GNU/Linux operating system, the Apache Web server and the MySQL database. In addition, although it does not fit neatly into the LAMP acronym, the open-source database PostgreSQL also is used in this combination. The P in LAMP stands for a programming/scripting language; the most common choices are Perl, Python and PHP. The LAMP platform is stable and regarded as "a mature alternative that has a lot to offer, particularly for projects on a tight budget" (McAllister, 2005). It also is easy to find Web hosting services that provide LAMP hosting.

The flexibility offered by a CMS that can run on multiple operating systems is an advantage, because it doesn't tie down your content management solution to a single operating system. Open-source CMSes built on the LAMP platform often run on operating systems other than GNU/Linux. Some even allow you to use alternate databases. Check which operating systems and databases are supported by the CMS you are evaluating.

Software License

The key distinguishing feature and value of open-source software is the license under which it is offered. It is important to check the license of the CMS you are considering, particularly if you are going to modify the software and plan to redistribute it. Simply because it claims to be open may not mean the CMS offers the benefits and protections that you might be expecting. The Open Source Initiative has a list of approved licenses. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) also provides a list of licenses along with a commentary. Check the license of the CMS you are considering against both of these resources. One license that you are most likely to encounter is the GNU General Public License (GPL). Invest the time to understand the GNU GPL, as it is used by many of the leading open-source CMS projects.

Stability and Development Activity

Open-source CMSes frequently start out as an experiment by a single programmer. Promising CMSes may attract other programmers, while less interesting projects are abandoned. CMSes that continue to grow may evolve into mature applications. One indicator of a healthy open-source project is constant development activity. Check how often new versions have been released. Regular or frequent releases are a good sign.

Do not base your decision solely on the version number of the open-source CMS, however. Some projects tend to inflate version numbers while others are modest. For example, a CMS sporting a 5.3 version number may not be necessarily more stable than one whose latest release is 1.2. Look for the project's Changelog or Release Notes documents. These usually include a list of new features, fixed bigs, improvements and known issues for each release. Scanning through this list may give you an idea of the pace of development activity and the project's stability.

Don't be discouraged by open-source projects that display a list of software bugs on their Web site. Good open-source projects acknowledge bugs and work openly to fix them. Projects that work quickly to address reported bugs are likely to be a good choice. Some may use bug-tracking software that allows developers and users to track the status of each bug. Try to get a sense of how long bugs stay open before they are addressed by looking at recently closed bugs. Also, assess if known issues or currently open bugs may make the CMS unsuitable for your needs. For a closer look at the development activity behind an open-source CMS project, take a look at the development forums or e-mail list archives, if they are available. This level of transparency is a strength of the open-source development process and enables you to make more informed decisions.

Repositories of open-source software try to make it easier to evaluate an open-source project by displaying indicators of its development activity and popularity. Figure 1 shows statistics compiled by the repository for Moodle, an open-source CMS. It includes scores and rankings by popularity, vitality and user ratings. Figure 2 shows similar statistics compiled by the development Web site, for the Plone CMS. also provides an activity percentile along with projects statistics that include downloads, page views, bugs, patches and project rank.

Figure 1. Statistics for the Moodle CMS

Figure 2. Statistics for the Plone CMS

User Community

The size and involvement of the user community is a good indicator of interest in the CMS. Look for active user discussion forums and/or mailing lists. Some projects proudly display a list of Web sites that are using its CMS. Visiting some of these Web sites can give you can idea of how the CMS is being used and how it can adapted.

The functionality of some open-source CMSes can be extended with the help of plugins. Others offer the ability to change presentations and appearances easily by using different themes. A large number of plugins and themes created by the user community demonstrates how easy it is to the customize the CMS. Also, scan user discussion forums and mailing lists to get a sense of how the developers respond to users' concerns and suggestions. Some projects also may offer user-contributed tips and tutorials. All are indications of an involved user community that may be able to help you. As open-source offerings have matured, commercial support for open-source CMS also is becoming available. Search for consultants that may be able to provide commercial technical support if you need it.

Documentation and Source Code

Successful open-source CMSes always are evolving, and it is a challenge to keep documentation up-to-date and useful. The Open Source user community often lends a helping hand in creating and updating documentation. Well-developed and current documentation would indicate an organized open-source CMS with an active community. Documentation may come in many forms; review changelogs, release notes, installation instructions and user manuals. Does the documentation address your concerns and questions?

Check if the open-source CMS has a developers' guide, coding standards and information on how others can contribute to the project. Established coding standards can help maintain consistent code even when a large number of programmers contribute to its development. Even if you do not have any programming experience, it may help to glance at the source code for the open-source CMS. Look for comments within the code written in English. Well-commented code can be easier to maintain and customize. If you are familiar with the programming language, you may be able to gain valuable insights into how the CMS works and the quality of its code.

Web Standards and Accessibility

Ignored in the past, compliance with the Web standards set out by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and other standards bodies is an important requirement for any software that generates content for the Web. Many open-source CMSes are committed to Web standards. But you don't have to take their word for it. With a quick visit to W3C's Markup Validation Service you can check for yourself if the CMS you are evaluating generates valid HTML or XHTML.

The W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has published Web Accessibility Guidelines to ensure that Web content is accessible to people with disabilities. Also, according to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1998, Web sites of organizations that receive US federal funding must be accessible to individuals with disabilities. Check if the CMS you are considering implementing these guidelines. Although a complete Web accessibility assessment should be conducted by an expert, you can conduct a preliminary assessment using an on-line accessibility validator such as the Cynthia Says portal, which checks a Web site's pages against both Section 508 and the WAI guidelines.

Suitability and Usability

List the features you need and how critical these features are to ensuring that your content management project meets its goals. Then, try to gauge if the CMSes you are evaluating meet the project requirements in part or in full. Also, how easily can it be adapted or customized to fulfill project objectives?

CMS-based Web sites can be complex to use. Web usability is defined as the quality that makes a Web site easy to use. Assessing and improving Web site usability is a task for usability experts, but you can conduct a informal usability assessment by gaining familiarity with the CMS you are evaluating. Open-source CMSes make this convenient because you can download and try them out without any restrictions. The Web site Open Source CMS make this even easier by providing complete installations of over a hundred open-source CMSes that you can try out (see Resources).


If you choose wisely, an open-source CMS can provide a stable, flexible and cost-effective system that is well-suited for your content management needs. More importantly, open-source CMSes give you the freedom to stay in control of your content management solution.


Cynthia Says Portal

Free Software Foundation: various licenses and comments about them.

Free Software Foundation: the GNU general public license.

"Column 100", Reuven Lerner, Linux Journal, April 2004.

"Shining a Light on the Open Source Stack", Neil McAllister, Infoworld, April 4, 2005.

Open Source CMS

Open Source Initiative, the approved licenses.

The CMS Matrix

W3C Validator

"Content Management", Reuven Lerner, Linux Journal, April 2003.

Abhijeet Chavan is the Chief Technology Officer of Urban Insight, Inc., a Web development consulting firm. He also is the co-founder and co-editor of Planetizen.



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Social application CMS

Social Application's picture

Hey its seem informative post.

Evaluating Open-Source Content Management Systems

Open source CMS 's picture

Hey ,Nice and helpful post about open source CMS.

They have to be SIMPLE

Peter Tandrer's picture

After working here - in Phuket - the only condition they have to fulfill here - they have to be SIMPLE. You really don't have a clue, how "simple-thinking" the people here are. Oh man - 8-)

Usability should be higher on the list

Matt Nuzum's picture

I have looked at many, many CMS systems and one thing I can say for certain is that few consider a polished, easy-to-learn interface as a high priority.

If you make frequent changes to your website then spend some extra time up front finding a CMS that facilitates quick and easy changes. It would be better in the long run to spend a little extra [time|money|etc] up front to find a CMS that will save you hours a week in the long run.

I'd say that usability is far more important in the long-run than the platform.

Choosing a CMS.

Taran's picture

While these 7 steps are important, the more practical aspects are just as important - and we could squeeze them under accessibility, or we could squeeze them under usability, or what have you. The ability to maximize the use of the content for the purpose of the owner of website is really what the whole thing is about.

For example - taxonomy/category handling is important. Intelligent use of categories allows data to be more intuitively handled on a site, and that means that the person designing the category has to have the maximum amount of flexibility through multiple and single hierarchies, as well as cross pollination between the categories.

That leads to documentation. If you're checking out CMS's, take a read of the documentation as well, and the support site (if available) and make sure that you understand what you are getting into.

And that leads to the most important thing about CMS choices: You really should know what you wish to do before you choose one so you select the right one for the right job. Having a proper definition of what a site is supposed to do comes first.

Apples and Oranges

Anonymous Coward's picture

A quick visit to Moodle's web site ( reveals that Moodle is a "Course Management System", NOT a "Content Management System". Using it as an example in an article about "Content Management Systems" is misleading.

You are right that Moodle is

Anonymous's picture

You are right that Moodle is a "course management system", also known as a "learning management system". However...

The term "content management system" is broad and includes various types of CMSes. According to Wikipedia, a "learning management system" such as Moodle is considered to be a type of CMS.

Moodle can certainly be used for non-teaching purposes such as community building or knowledge management and the Moodle website itself is a good example of such use.

The Moodle screenshot here is used as an example of the info you can get on Freshmeat and Sourceforge about an open source project. It is not being compared to anything else.

still misleading (imho)

Anonymous coward's picture

Yes, I noticed that the screenshot was posted to show information that can be obtained from Freshmeat, but there are thousands of other projects that could have been used for the same purpose (i.e. show the information that can be obtained). I don't think the choice of "Moodle" was mere coincidence. Come on.

Good point on Wikipedia, though. But even though Wikipedia's definition includes it, I still maintain that using a Course Management System as an example of a Content Management System in an article about choosing a Content Management System is misleading. Before I let the Wikipedia definition rest, though, I must say that we *do* work in an industry that sometimes has a bad habit of lumping things together that don't belong together. For example, there are those who call HTML a programming language.

I work with a commercial Content Management System every day (and I'll be the first to admit this in no way makes me an expert). It is used (quite simply) to "manage content" of two websites. That is, we (the "experts" (haha)) set up templates so that we have control over the look and feel of the entire site. "Users", then put in their "content" and viola, they've got a web page.

I would hesitate to call a Course Management System even a subset of Content Management. I mean, there is certainly some intersection between the two problem domains, but they still remain two distinct problems (in my mind, anyway). Maybe if I was in a good mood I would yield that a Course Management System is a highly specialized Content Management System... but even then I would start to think about how course management might have things like schedules; "students", "teachers", and "administrators" (as opposed to "editors", "reviewers", and "authors", which I would consider the users in the Content Management System domain); classes; campuses; etc. (none of which I believe to be part of a Content Management System).

I picture the person interested in reading this article as someone who is trying to choose a system that will allow them delagate management of a very large website to different groups of people within an agency or company. Or perhaps someone who is trying to maintain a consistent look and feel for a news website that has 20 different authors who regularly post articles. I don't think someone looking for a Course Management System would see this article on their rss feed and think "Hey, that might help me solve my problem; I should read it."


haas's picture

Since this topic became a heated argument, this may encourage the need for another article that covers the definitions of LMS vs CMS, their feature and functionalities, and after that we can have a much more interesting debate whether LMS can be used as a CMS and vice-versa. (Just a suggestion.)

But in my humble opinion, I would agree with Anonymous Coward that using Moodle as an example is misleading even if it can be customized and used as a CMS. I would have used Drupal, Joomla, or others as examples because they are legitimate CMS platforms and it would have been much more appropriate and accurate.

Take care guys.


Anonymous's picture

So it's a CMS with some extra features for managing "classes" -- but according to an independent site it works as a regular CMS too.


Anonymous coward's picture

okay, I'll bite... what is this "independent site" that you speak of?

CMS or not CMS

Anonymous's picture


come on... the LMS is managing content that an instructor wishes to pass to her students, correct? Does it manage content, or not?

Besides, the refrence to the LMS was only to illustrate an example of viewing project activity on freshmeat. For that example, who cares what program is used?