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Open source, SAAS or custom built – how do we chart a source in a sea of IT options?

The Xfactor Collective specialist business member Jacqui Blanch provides a useful set of questions to help narrow down the sea of web options.

It is exciting to look back across the last 30 to 40 years and the worldwide revolution in electronics and IT.

In less than one lifetime, the average organisation has advanced from hand-written accounting ledgers, typing pools and snail mail to a place where each stakeholder has at least one digital device, most communication is electronic and business is expected to have information and web technology in place that is attractive, informative, interactive and efficient.

There are millions of software choices available and most are pretty good at what they do. I have never seen a perfect one-size-fits-all app and achieving your IT goals will generally require more than one solution.

When picking those solutions, this is the order I would do it in.


Define the following:

  • What is the problem you solve?
  • Who are your external and internal stakeholders?
  • How do you solve the problem?
  • Who are you?
  • What do you need to deliver and manage for each group of stakeholders?

All people and all organisations are unique, and these top-line guiding principles can help:

KISS principle (“Keep it Simple, Stupid”) – Design your workflows to do it once; automate recurring actions; and keep each action simple.

Replication and complexity lead to confusion, mistakes, lack of productivity and frustration.

Find your sweet spot – Build what works for you, your team, your stakeholds.


 Keep your expectations realistic. It’s tempting to pick the free or cheapest option at the time. This won’t serve you later on if you cannot exit your current solutions easily as your requirements grow.

  • Free and freemium technology is usually quite limited and services a very specific niche. Compromising on functionality will cost you in productivity and frustration.
  • Technology evolves quickly and there will always be upgrades, maintenance and security improvements required. Installing static solutions leaves you vulnerable to security issues, software failures and frustration.
  • History is littered with stories of apps that were the “current big thing” and no longer exist. Make sure you can exit your IT solution and transfer your data, assets and content should you need to

Open source, e.g. Joomla, WordPress, Drupal:

  • Self or cloud hosted.
  • Free code.
  • The code can be extended with plugins (free, freemium, paid) to do just about anything.
  • You manage your own content.
  • You have to manage upgrades.
  • Most have good community support.
  • You only pay for upgrades and support for paid plugins.

SAAS (software as a service), e.g. Wix, Squarespace:

  •  Some start free (usually with platform branding or ads).
  • Comes as a monthly or annual fee with tiered pricing.
  • Hosted on the app’s servers.
  • Comes with dedicated support.
  • Upgrades are installed automatically.
  • Extending past the app’s capabilities is often impossible, requires extra investment or linking with other apps.

Custom built:

  •  Good for building a custom app or SAAS solution.
  • Getting several quotes across differing architectural stacks is advisable.
  • Check the architecture is common enough that you can swap developers if someone moves on.
  • Require your developers to document your build properly for you, your end user and any future developers.
  • Have an API available so your app can be hooked to other apps.

Based on my circumstances, I would choose Joomla (best for cost effective development out of the box), WordPress (easy to use and extendible), Squarespace (a good SAAS offering with a good range of extensions), Drupal (hard to customise), Wix (really limited functionality) and Custom Build (the ROI would be too high) in that order.

However, that may not be the order I would choose for your organisation.

If you know what you need to achieve, break that into workflows, look at the options available for different workflows, get an overview of each option, then narrow down those options in terms of the criteria below, you can nail down choices that will work in your organisation.

  • What are you trying to achieve?
  • What functionality does it offer?
  • What functionality does it lack?
  • What are the ongoing licensing/subscription costs?
  • How many devices and/or users per licence?
  • Does it work online and offline?
  • Can you collaborate with your team/s?
  • Can you synchronise it across devices?
  • Can you collaborate with external stakeholders for free?
  • How many transactions are included?
  • How much storage is provided?
  • How much bandwidth is provided?
  • How much configuration/design is possible/required?
  • Will you need extensions/plugins to provide extra functionality and what do they cost?
  • Can it be integrated with other apps you use?
  • How much custom development may be required?
  • Support availability and cost?
  • Maintenance/upgrade availability and cost?
  • Are you and your stakeholders going to like using it?


 Jacqui Blanch is an experienced web developer and Specialist member of The Xfactor Collective, and provides website assessment, review and design services to organisations of all sizes.

Need help in your organisation? We run the sector’s first Specialist triage support service (our CONCIERGE) where we can help you find support from a range of services and solutions.


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