What are the Best Open Source Content Management Systems?
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There are dozens of Linux distributions, but only one Linux. There are over a dozen open-source web servers, but only one Apache. When it comes to open-source Content Management Systems (CMS), however, there are more than a hundred choices. This guide includes a line up of the most popular CMSs, a list of features every top-rated CMS provides, and suggestions on how to choose the best one for you.
Unlike Linux, where the distributions are variations on a single theme, most CMSs are incompatible with each other. Each one takes a different route to achieve the goal of making complex web sites manageable. You can mix-and-match the platforms underneath a CMS. Any of the CMSs covered in this guide run on your favorite Linux distro and often use a variety of database management systems (DBMS).
Regardless of which CMS you eventually choose, at their heart, they all work the same way. They attempt to make it easy to build websites.
For more control there are a variety of programming languages and databases available to use. These often include Python, .NET, PHP, and Java. Data for your site, even if it’s primarily plain text, is usually kept in such DBMSs as MySQL, MariaDB, and PostgreSQL.
Features to Look for in a CMS
Minimal Coding Expertise Needed
With a best-of-breed content management system, you can build websites even if you are not a developer. Simultaneously, you can add custom code via the CMS if you need more features or granular control over your site.
Multiple User Collaboration
The best CMSs allow multiple users to work on your site simultaneously. For instance, your writers and editors can add content, your administrators can update the site’s software, and your developers can add custom code, all at the same time.
This functionality is managed by a built-in user role-based access control and authentication system.
Search Engine Optimization
The best content management systems offer built-in features as well as add-ons to help you do well with search engine optimization (SEO). Most CMSs also support third-party SEO tools.
Proper use of these tools improves your site and pages' chances of high Google and other search engines rankings. This is essential for finding an audience for your site, services, and products.
The best open-source content management systems come with some security tools. With CMSs under constant attack, you will probably need additional security tools.
This functionality enables you to roll out content on a schedule. For example, you can set your Black Friday advertising to first appear on November 10th.
Plugins and Themes Support
Successful CMSs have a software ecosystem built around them. These typically include plugins to add more functionality such as SEO, anti-spam, and contact forms. Most also come with a variety of ready-to-use themes, which you can use to quickly deploy a website with a particular look, feel, and functionality.
Easy to Use Content Interface
The best content management systems should come with a What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editor. This enables you to create text content within the CMS. At the same time, they enable you to quickly import text from other programs.
Which Content Management System is Right For You?
With so many programs and features, what should you look for? Ultimately, it’s all about the program’s ability to meet your requirements. Therefore, work out exactly what you need from a content management system, before you make your final decision. There are essentially four different CMS use cases.
Web Content Management
This is where CMSs all begin. The basic CMS provides a way to build and maintain web content. Usually, these enable creators and editors to pour content into the backend. This can include text and multimedia content. You also need editorial management tools, such as full-text search capabilities.
This is just what it says it is. The best open-source e-commerce CMSs incorporate basic e-commerce functions. These include inventory control, secure transaction support, and built-in payment system interoperability with such systems as PayPal, Stripe, and Amazon Pay. Some of the best-known e-commerce CMSs are Magento, Shopify, and OpenCart.
News and Blog Publishing
Here the focus is on publishing words and possibly audio and video content. You need ways for editors and writers to prepare and publish content. You also need to be able to quickly add and change complex links, and to categorize the content. Another important element is the ability to link your content to social media and network platforms.
WordPress is by far the most well-known of these CMSs, but there are many others.
Developing an online community site is much more complicated than a simple website. Here content is created not only by you, but by your sites' members as well. This means you must give them the tools they need to create and share content.
While social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are based on open-source, you can’t use their code to make your own Facebook clone. There are many open-source social media CMSs, such as Elgg , Mastodon , and Dolphin , but none of them, or services based on them, have gained anything close to the success of the major social networks. Still, if you want to build a social network of your own, these give you the foundation you need.
Content Management System Types
There are technically two different kinds of CMSs. The first are conventional CMSs, such as the well-known WordPress , Joomla! , and Drupal . These help you build both the backend and frontend of your website. The newer headless CMS takes a radically different approach.
A headless CMS doesn’t bother with the website’s front-end. Instead, its focus is on the back-end content repository, which is used for storing and delivering structured content. This content is then made available for display via a RESTful API, typically using JSON or XML .
The argument for this approach is that traditional CMSs, such as the 20-plus-year-old WordPress, have a monolithic legacy architecture that is difficult to build, often slow, and vulnerable to hackers. Headless CMS, such as Strapi , Ghost , Contentful , and Prismic , use APIs to integrate into a variety of front-end frameworks, which gives developers the freedom to choose their favorite tools, while reducing hosting and development costs.
With all this in mind, the section below includes some of the best open-source CMSs to consider. There is no ‘best’ or ‘worst’ between these tools. Fundamentally, it’s a question of the right fit for you.
The Top Ten Open-Source Content Management Systems
Grav may be the CMS for you if you want a user-friendly CMS. It’s designed for speed, and depends on flat-file directories instead of a complex DBMS such as MySQL or MariaDB.
Flat file directories mean that an article’s data is kept in an HTML file under the
/user/pages directory. The article’s images are kept in
/user/images. You create these pages with your favorite Markdown or text editor.
You can run the self-hosted version on your own servers or in the cloud. If you need more support, the developers have a commercial company, Trilby Media . Trilby offers consulting and custom programming.
Grav is written primarily in PHP and the Symfony web application framework. The program is licensed under the open-source MIT license . It works with any major web server, but for the best performance, Grav recommends you use a PHP user cache such as APCu , Memcached , or Redis .
- It’s not difficult to learn.
- Much easier to backup, mitigate, or update than other CMSs thanks to its simple file system infrastructure.
- Excellent for basic websites.
- Supports the highly customizable Twig templating engine.
- It’s not ideal for complex websites.
You can quickly deploy an instance of the Grav CMS on a Linode server using the Linode Marketplace App. Follow the steps in the Deploying Grav through the Linode Marketplace guide to get started.
Drupal is an enterprise-class CMS. There’s very little you can’t do with this comprehensive program if you have the expertise. Drupal is powerful, but to access that power, you need Drupal experts on staff.
Drupal has many loyal fans, most of whom are hard-core web developers and programmers. With their expertise and Drupal’s Application Programming Interface (API), you can customize Drupal to do exactly what you want. Without that, building a site can be tedious. As Drupal itself notes, it’s more than a CMS, it’s a Web Application Framework (WAF). Drupal is written in PHP. The program uses the GNU Public License, version 2 (GPLv2) .
- Community support is strong, and the community, like Drupal itself, is very technical.
- Drupal boasts tens of thousands of modules for add-on functionality.
- Drupal is one of the few CMSs that fully support accessibility standards .
- It has a steep learning curve.
- Using Drupal to its best advantage requires programming skills.
You can deploy a Drupal instance on a Linode server using the Linode Marketplace App. Follow the steps in the Deploying Drupal through the Linode Marketplace guide to get started.
One of the most well-regarded headless CMSs, Ghost is primarily for content creators. It provides the tools you need to publish, share, and grow a content business. Besides website and publishing services, it also offers newsletters and paid subscriptions mechanisms.
It integrates well with such communication services as Slack, AMP, and Disqus. It also supports website tools including Google Analytics, Typeform, and Codepen, and comes ready to work with payment services such as Paypal and Stripe.
- Simple to learn, use, and deploy.
- Great for blogging or simple publishing.
- Has great SEO support.
Ghost doesn’t have third-party support of other more popular, primarily blogging CMSs such as WordPress.
This popular open-source CMS began as a fork of the open-core CMS Mambo . Joomla has an excellent reputation as a full-featured general CMS. You can set up a website from start to finish in just a few hours.
Many developers like it because it comes with many features that its rival requires extra plugins for. Like other mature CMSs, it comes with a rich ecosystem of third-party software and templates .
Not everyone loves Joomla though. Some users find it difficult to use once they’re beyond the basics of setting up a site. A common complaint is that it’s dated and needs a more user-friendly refresh. Even so, Joomla has many fans and it’s a worthwhile CMS for many purposes.
Written in PHP, Joomla stores your data in a MySQL database. Unlike many PHP programs, its developers took an object-oriented programming approach to its software design. The program is licensed under the GPLv2 and the Lesser GPL (LGPL) .
- Powerful, general-purpose CMS.
- User-friendly for both beginners and experienced web developers.
- Sophisticated sites may require a veteran Joomla developer.
- Fewer extensions than the most popular CMSs.
You can deploy an instance of the Joomla CMS on a Linode server using the Linode Marketplace App. Follow the steps in the Deploying Joomla through the Linode Marketplace guide to get started.
Like its new name tells you, Magento is a CMS that’s all about e-commerce. With it, you can set up your own storefront quickly. It also excels at SEO.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that with more complex stores, its complex default DBMS structure can slow its performance down. With DBMS and backend tuning, you can overcome this problem, but you need expert DBMS administration to do this.
Magento comes with a rich software ecosystem. This makes it easy to adjust your Magento website to work exactly how you want it to.
Like most other CMSs, Magento is written in PHP. The program is licensed under the Open Software License (OSL).
- Easy to set up.
- Good SEO and third-party software support.
- Difficult to tune for best performance.
- The open-source version tends to be well behind the commercial edition in features.
Plone is an excellent general-purpose, open-source CMS. It’s very flexible and gives you plenty of power to customize it to exactly what you want. However, this is another CMS where you can get the most from the program, it helps if you’re an expert website developer, and being a good Python programmer also helps.
But, once you’ve climbed the learning curve, you’ll find a lot to like. It’s both SEO-friendly and secure from the get-go. While it may be difficult to adopt for beginners, professional website developers will find a lot to like with plone.
Plone is written in Python and built on top of the Zope application server. The program is licensed under the GPLv2.
Very flexible and powerful.
To take full advantage of its capabilities, you need to have Python and Zope developers on staff.
The headless Strapi CMS is built on Node.js . It’s customizable using APIs. Its database and file content can be accessed for display on websites, smartphones, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. This content is delivered via the JAMstack static-site generators and front-end frameworks, such as Gatsby.js, Next.js, Nuxt.js, Angular, React, and Vue.js. On the backend, it supports both SQL and NoSQL databases .
Strapi is the most popular headless CMS. This new approach takes some getting used to, although once mastered it’s useful. This is especially true when you consider how often your audience may be seeing your website, not with a desktop-based web browser, but on a smartphone, tablet, or IoT device.
Not difficult to learn and user-friendly.
- Can be difficult to install.
- There were significant changes from version 3 to the newest, version 4, and the documentation hasn’t caught up yet.
Despite the amusing name, TYPO3 is a seriously good general-purpose CMS. This CMS is best used for enterprise sites. It’s overkill for small businesses or organizations.
This CMS can be anything you want it to be. But, with great power comes great complexity. While you can certainly use it for simple projects, it’s best used for large websites with expert developers and programmers.
TYPO3, like most mature CMSs, is written in PHP and licensed under the GPLv2.
- Very powerful
- Good community support
- It has a steep learning curve.
- Documentation needs to be updated.
Are you already using WordPress? Do you want to run an e-commerce site without putting it together yourself? You’re the ideal WooCommerce user.
This program isn’t a standalone CMS. You must be running WordPress to use WooCommerce. It runs as a WordPress plugin. But, it’s such a useful open-source, e-commerce program that it deserves a mention of its own.
WooCommerce is a modular program so you only need to run the features you need for your business. It also comes with several hundred extensions to make it just right for you. Together with WordPress, this makes it a lightweight, customizable e-commerce system, unlike many similar CMSs.
WooCommerce is written in PHP, and like the program underneath it, it is licensed under the GPLv2.
- Offers many plugins and themes to get just the right mix of features and looks.
- Includes inventory control.
- Supports PayPal and Stripe payments by default.
Its flexibility can be confusing until you have a firm grip on all the options.
You can deploy a WooCommerce instance on a Linode server using the Linode Marketplace App. Follow the steps in the Deploying WooCommerce through the Linode Marketplace guide to get started.
Finally, there’s the 800-pound gorilla of CMSs: WordPress . WordPress now runs 43% of the Web. While you can run a site off the WordPress.com service , to control and grow your site you must run it off a server or cloud, to call your own.
WordPress is so popular because it is both powerful, simple to set up, and not difficult to use. For many users, it’s the perfect CMS trifecta.
If WordPress doesn’t have the specific tools or look you need, just look to WordPress Plugins or Themes , and odds are what you’re looking for is there. If it’s not, you can always find help from one of hundreds of thousands of WordPress consultants.
WordPress is written in PHP. You can argue it’s the program that made PHP the language of choice for CMSs. It’s licensed under the GPLv2.
- Gigantic software ecosystem.
- Extremely easy to use.
- Huge amount of documentation.
- Due to the sheer number of all WordPress’s options, it can be confusing.
- Because it’s so popular, hackers target it more than any other CMS. Using a third-party security program such as WordFence or Jetpack is essential.
You can deploy a WordPress instance on a Linode server using the Linode Marketplace App. Follow the steps in the Deploying WordPress through the Linode Marketplace guide to get started.
Which Top Open-Source Content Management System is Right For You?
Now that you are familiar with some of the CMSs that are available, you should continue your research to figure out which is best for your use case. You may also deploy an instance of Drupal, Joomla, or WordPress on an Ubuntu server and test drive each one.
The best way to work out the right choice is to try them out for yourself. Fortunately, since open-source software can be freely tried, that’s not hard to do. First determine which CMSs look best, and then test out the best two or three.
Have your company’s other website stakeholders involved in the process. Just because something looks like it’s a good fit to the IT department, doesn’t mean that marketing likes it at all. Find a CMS that works for everyone.
Once that’s done, and your hands are dirty from building test sites, you’re ready to make an informed CMS decision.
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