June 11, 2008

Web developer practices open source but doesn't preach it

Author: Tina Gasperson

Co-founders Jake St. Peter and Thomas Ingham started Coalmarch, a Web applications development company, in 2004 after "about 10 years' background in Web development" for other companies, St. Peters says. After working for a company called gotickets.com, he and his partner decided to launch their own business, providing content management systems and shopping carts. They use open source software, but with it they built a proprietary package -- because, St. Peter says, that's what customers want.

Right from the beginning, the company deployed its development environment and Web servers on Linux, since Ingham's background was with that platform. "That was my first experience with Linux," St. Peter says. "I found that it is a very comfortable and safe environment to develop in."

With a secure foundation on which to build, St. Peter and Ingham started out developing solutions to work with Yahoo! stores, because it was well-known and affordable. They quickly found that platform wasn't flexible enough to customize according to their clients needs.

The intuitive next step was to take a look at an open source solution, since they already had experience with Linux. But they experienced challenges with open source as well. "We had tried using some open source software and also using existing content management systems, and we got to the point where we were not happy with what we had to work with," St. Peter says. "The existing systems didn't support SEO at a time when it was becoming really big. For example, OScommerce. At the time, their URL structure was being passed through seven different parameters. And we needed more 'editability' within different sections of the site. Even though it was open source, there was a lot of frustration in running a system that we had not written and didn't have full control over."

St. Peter and Ingham decided it was time to write their own SEO-friendly content management system that would run on a LAMP infrastructure. "We chose an open source platform because we firmly believe in it," St. Peter says. "We are not fans of Microsoft, and it was a no-brainer for us that that was the road we were going to go down."

The CMS, called CoalEngine, is available by subscription and comes with or without access to the source code, but the program is proprietary and clients are not allowed to edit or redistribute the code. St. Peter likes using open source internally, but seems uncomfortable with the idea of producing, distributing, or recommending it to his clients. He says that with applications like CoalEngine, customers look for proprietary solutions. "We deal with clients saying, 'Why should I use CoalEngine if I can go out and get an open source CMS for free?' But they should have concerns about going with a small-level open source project like Joomla! The support is not there," St. Peter says. "It's not free, because they have to hire developers to deploy and customize it.

"The term open source has become coined as this great thing, like a revolution of the Internet and development. And while I agree -- it has big players like Linux and Apache and I would recommend any client to go that route because they are supported and bug-free and updated and it's not just people working on it on their off-time -- it's not to put down small projects. I have recommended them before to clients that know programming, because their business is not affected once something goes wrong. But companies dealing with ecommerce can't afford to run into problems like that with a system that is not supported by a company. As far as CMS and ecommerce systems, no, open source is not the best route. They should find proprietary software solutions."


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