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Can open source content management tools support e-commerce sites?

It's important to consider user experience and flexibility when choosing open source content management or commercial tools for e-commerce sites.

My boss asked me to look into bringing in a new content management application (CMA) for our company's new e-commerce site. Should I look at open source tools as well as commercial products, and how should I begin the search process?

To begin with, you need to break this question into its component parts. How is your new CMA tool going to impact your new e-commerce site? And how are you going to generate and manage all of the content for your e-commerce presence? Once you understand your system requirements, you can shop around and determine whether open source content management tools or commercial products can best meet your objectives.

When it comes to e-commerce, the hard part is focusing on the user's experience with your website and identifying all the different kinds of content assets that reinforce your brand (or brands). To begin with, you are probably trying to sell stuff online. That typically requires some kind of product catalog and the ability to manage information about the organization's offerings.

If your company provides services, it makes sense to include descriptions on the site so customers know what they'll be paying for. Of course, content is hardly static -- you'll need to update it and continually enhance and extend the online experience. And don't forget that an e-commerce site is probably just one of several channels through which you'll make contact with customers. It may be you'll start conversations with some customers in "real" places and then shift them to the online world. It's just as likely that some relationships will be initiated online and later move to real-world contact.

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Look for a content management application that makes sense in terms of how your organization works and how it manages IT resources. Perhaps the company already has a substantial investment in its IT infrastructure. Does it make business sense, then, to leverage what's already in place? Or is it time to exploit alternative resources, perhaps delivered as cloud-based services? Deployment options are important and there are many to consider.

Finally to the nub of the question: Should you go with open source content management or a commercial product? As you can perhaps already tell, my short answer is, "It depends." With Drupal, Joomla, WordPress and others, there are many popular open source offerings running on the LAMP stack that you might consider. Among commercial vendors you could look at Microsoft and its partners that build on the Microsoft stack, such as Sitecore and Ektron, as well as Oracle, IBM, OpenText, Adobe, SDL and even Salesforce.com.

As with all things in the software industry, it's important to consider the tradeoffs between the organization's content management requirements and what the CMA actually delivers. The open source options tend to be more flexible and adaptable than commercial products are. But with open source content management, some development is almost certainly required to get the application to do what you really want. Consider the flexibility and extensibility of open source tools, compare them to the product roadmaps of commercial offerings that your IT infrastructure supports and then weigh your alternatives with your eyes wide open.

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