Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions, such as Microsoft Office 365 and Google Drive and Docs, have become commonplace in businesses across the globe. For many businesses, this subscription model is preferable to the alternative of hefty, and relatively inflexible, physical licences.
In a similar vein, cloud-first content management systems, which typically operate as SaaS models, are becoming more prevalent, battling the traditional players of the web content management industry for dominance. Choosing whether to build your site or application on a traditional content management system or by using a cloud-first content management system is an important decision. Both options have strengths and weaknesses, and making this decision can be daunting.
The good news is that there is a real choice that can be tailored to your business’s individual needs. Answering these five key questions can help you decide what is the best for you.
How important is ownership to you?
By ownership I mean both ownership of the content management system and ownership of the data.
Whether it is open source or proprietary, a traditional content management system is controlled by you. You can decide where it is hosted; you have access to the code files, and you can introduce customisation. With a cloud-first system you are leasing the application and that control is largely taken out of your hands. On the flip side, you also lose all the usual headaches and pains that come with a traditional content management system.
The answer to the question of ownership is going to depend on your organisation and its IT policies. These policies will have been implemented for a reason so you have to understand how they protect the organisation. Things change over time and rather than simply dismissing cloud-first if it doesn’t fit the current policies it is worth considering how they might evolve in future.
We also need to consider the ownership of data. This is really specific to industry and the nature of your business. As part of your terms and conditions, retaining customer/user data may need to be regulated. This will often involve oversight on your part and the ability to prove that you are in full control of that data. In this case, a cloud-first content management system may not be the most appropriate route. While you could split out the user data into a separate database that you host somewhere you can control, the argument could be made that you’re introducing complexity into a solution that was not designed to cater to this. Reviewing the data you hold and understanding where your responsibility lies can have a big impact on your decision.
What is your website/application?
Both traditional and cloud-first content management systems can be used to develop all manner of websites although each option is more suitable to certain applications than others.
A SaaS-based cloud-first content management system has various advantages, such as high availability, and lower overheads, but again there is the issue of less control. To be clear, you don’t have access to the underlying code.
For a simple website project this is not usually a problem. The content management system will give you everything you need to spin up your site and take advantage of the latest and greatest front end technologies along the way.
However, for more complex sites that require custom functionality or the integration of external systems, the SaaS-based cloud-first content management systems is less flexible.
The composition of the development team is another ingredient which is worth bearing in mind. The nature of the project may have already dictated the composition and skills of the development team but, if not, look closely at it.
Cloud-first content management systems are designed to be simple and accessible, so designers and developers with less experience levels can use them. With traditional content management systems, developers tend to be more experienced. The composition of the team may therefore point towards the most appropriate solution.
How quickly do you need the website/application?
There are claims that cloud-first platforms offer a faster development cycle. While this may be true in certain circumstances, it is not a golden rule. You can also roll out websites and applications quickly through traditional content management systems.
Where cloud-first content management systems have the edge is on the initial set up and configuration. In theory, cloud-first allows you to simply start while traditional content management systems will require initial installation and configuration of development and deployment processes. Some hosting providers will offer part of this service in their packages for open source platforms.
What is your budget?
Budget can often be used as a factor to decide between proprietary and open source content management systems. Proprietary systems come with a licence fee, typically paid upfront with an annual fee thereafter, while open source systems are usually free.
Cloud-first content management systems running as SaaS will usually have a subscription model, allowing customers to choose from a number of pricing tiers. Traditional open source may therefore seem the way to go, but consider the whole picture.
Development costs aside, you need to think about everything that surrounds that licence fee. This is going to include the costs of installation and configuration, hosting, deployments and upgrades. With the traditional content management systems, the licence fee will depend on the product you are using (whether there is one or not) but the rest all has a cost attached. How you configure, develop and extend the website or application is going to have an impact on these costs over time.
With cloud-first content management systems, these costs are rolled into your ongoing subscription fee. Unlike a licence arrangement, you are not just paying for the product, but for the infrastructure and the ongoing maintenance of the platform. Potentially the cost savings are stacked in the cloud-first content management system’s favour.
It is important to not only look at the initial outlay on the project but to consider your costs year by year. As well as development, you will need to fund support and maintenance, hosting and upgrades throughout the lifecycle of the website.
What resources do you have for support and maintenance?
Following hot on the heels of the previous point, every platform requires hot fixes, security patches and upgrades. To provide the best experience, you need to be on top of these items.
In a traditional content management system, you can expect to be handling this yourself, or through your development partner. The amount of money this costs varies greatly as it will often depend on the platform and the amount of customisation introduced into the platform.
In contrast, cloud-first content management systems benefit from that reduction in control. The vendors are able to take control of ongoing fixes, patches and upgrades as part of your monthly subscription fee. In addition, you don’t need that specialised skill (essentially DevOps) within your own team or development partner.
The best decision for you
There’s no short cut to deciding the best option for your business, and there is no one size fits all solution. However, by carefully considering these five key areas, you can determine whether a traditional content management system or a cloud-first content management system will be most suitable for your website or application. The five questions won’t give you all the answers but should give you a series of questions to anchor your discussion and help you make the most informed decision.
Richard Madigan, Senior Project Manager and Consultant, MMT Digital
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