One of the more important decisions for a CMO or CTO is deciding what type of content management system (CMS) to use for the web. The last decade has brought about a wave of changes to the complexity, capabilities and expectations of web content management (WCM).

WCM has now transformed into the backbone and front end technology to interact with customers online. Recent evolutions have required WCM to integrate and work with many other systems: commerce, analytics, customer relationship management, lead nurture, reputation management, enterprise search and more.

Although the importance of a WCM has increased, the scenarios that drive a decision are consistent with the past:

  • The current legacy platform has limitations and isn’t evolving to customer expectations
  • Maintenance of the current platform has become inefficient or expensive
  • The current WCM is underserving design and marketing departments
  • A brand redesign is in progress, with efforts to upgrade WCM

Regardless of the scenario, a choice is still needed on the type of WCM to implement. Although custom platforms are still utilized, two options tend to dominate the conversation: commercial/boxed/closed source vs. open source web content platforms.

Why Adobe Experience Manager?

Adobe Experience Manager (AEM), previously known as Adobe CQ is well regarded in the industry as a leading commercial WCM platform.

Content Management System Comparison

In Forrester’s October 22, 2015 report “The Forrester Wave, Digital Experience Platforms, Q4 2015,” Adobe Experience Manager was the only CMS that made it into the “leader” category. Forrester ranked AEM especially high for its core capabilities, supporting integrations and platform quality and consistency. Gartner and other independent ranking sources, have arrived at a similar conclusion over the years. Adobe Experience Manager is a leading digital experience platform and will be the focus of this comparison to open source solutions.

Background on Adobe

Content Management System Usage

Adoption and Usage

According to website research tool,, Adobe CQ maintains a 3% market share among 10,000 of the world’s largest websites. Among 100K, the numbers get worse, towards 1%.
In contrast, close to 50% of all CMS are open source, specifically WordPress and Drupal.

Other trends to recognize:

  1. Commercial CMS have higher adoption among sites with the most traffic
  2. Drupal and WordPress are clear leaders in the open source movement
  3. Free platforms like Drupal and WordPress are easily more popular than paid solutions
  4. Adobe AEM often gains market share from other commercial platforms rarely at the expense of open source options

These trends also match analyst’s expectations. Adobe CQ is often viewed as a Ferrari compared to the Ford Fusion of WordPress and Drupal. As the complexity of a brand’s digital presence increases, the scale of content and digital assets, multi-lingual requirements, performance, security and integrations make commercial CMS more aligned with high expectations.

Yet is Ford Fusion really a fair analogy? With the advancement of Acquia + Drupal as an open source platform, one company maintains it can perform as well as a commercial CMS.

Why Acquia + Drupal is the Only Real Open Source Option

Forrester’s Wave and Gartner’s Magic Quadrant have placed Acquia’s extended Drupal platform as the only open source solution capable to handle the complexity and demands of enterprise clients. The open source contender was only recently added in 2013, but has been represented each year thereafter.

Although open source WCM is popular and has existed for some time, most of these platforms were competing for popularity, powering blogging and small business websites. Before today’s Squarespace, Wix and Weebly, there was Drupal, Joomla and Wordpress, neck in neck in adoption and fighting for becoming everyone’s favorite web content system. In 2012, Wordpress began to blow past competition.

Content Management System Interest Over Time

“Drupal is not everyman’s Content Management System, and a good majority of users will shy away from it simply because it has too much to offer,” – Current State of Drupal

Drupal is a true open source platform, popularly adopted throughout the world. Acquia’s Drupal is something entirely different. Built using open source Drupal at the core, Acquia has extended Drupal to include proprietary software, including:

  • Acquia Cloud: hosting and managed services optimized for Drupal through Amazon Web Services
  • Acquia Cloud Site Factory: easy web deployment built for marketers, connecting hundreds of sites through a single dashboard.
  • Acquia Content Hub: connects hundreds of websites and allows for a powerful role-based authoring experience.
  • Acquia Lift: Rule-based segmentation and personalization delivered in real time
  • Acquia Mollum: Spam monitoring software for user generated content
  • Acquia Search: Enterprise search capabilities

According to Forrester’s 2015 rankings, “Acquia’s stated vision is being an open, cloud-first, integration-centric platform. This is appealing for companies looking to anchor digital experiences with content and community, but extend it out to commerce and service though integration.”

Notably, the ranking factors with the weakest score for Acquia’s Drupal, were core capabilities, supporting capabilities and vision. Much of this is a result of the platform focusing primarily on web content management and cloud hosting/managed services. Acquia has been scaling efforts to better support digital marketing departments in recent years, adding Acquia Lift, Content Hub and recently the Acquia Campaign Cloud.

Less important factors to ranking in Forrester’s Wave included a low score for customer base, product revenue and global presence. Although Acquia will often call out the popularity of Drupal in marketing efforts, Drupal adoption is not the same as Acquia’s Drupal platform. Although, Acquia’s Drupal has been cited as the fastest growing WCM for the enterprise market. Adobe’s AEM received better marks from Forrester for all three (customer base and diversity, product revenue and global presence).

In contrast, Adobe Experience Manager, features built-in enterprise search and digital asset management. AEM manages mobile apps, forms, assets (images, video, etc.), sites and communities. Adobe Managed Services outsources the hosting and uptime to Adobe via Amazon Web Services while AEM Cloud Management is a self-hosted option available.

The Adobe Marketing Cloud, seamlessly integrates with AEM and extends the platform from web content management to web experience.

  • Adobe Analytics: provides tools for segmentation across marketing channels and real-time analytics.
  • Adobe Audience: data management platform deigned to identify the most valuable market segments by building individual audience profiles.
  • Adobe Campaign: helps personalize marketing campaigns to be delivered across all traditional and online channels.
  • Media Optimizer: forecasting tool to help plan ad budgets and marketing campaigns.
  • Primetime: a platform to help cable networks and broadcasters make and monetize TV and film spots.
  • Social: Adobe’s social management platform helps engage with visitors, publish content, and monitor conversion data.
  • Target: helps match the right personalized message to each visitor.

For years, Adobe has added to a vision of enabling marketing departments to create rich customer experiences online. Adopting only Adobe Experience Manager doesn’t tap into the full potential of the platform.

Open Source vs. Closed Source Systems

Commercial off-the-shelf CMS are the babies of a single, for-profit company. A group of developers -- ranging from a dozen to more than a hundred – work together to build a coherent product. They might use software and standards designed by open source developers, but these are carefully vetted to be sure they work properly and add to the overall system. Since commercial CMS software is built by a dedicated and unified developer team, the end product is highly consistent. Generally, the functionalities of a closed source system will integrate easily and efficiently.

Open source systems are totally different. A dedicated community of volunteers suggest and oversee iterations and developers from all over the world contribute. For example, more than 30,000 developers have been involved with testing and reviewing code for Drupal and many more have contributed plug-ins and modules
. However, these definitions for open source and closed source software aren’t as defined for Acquia and Adobe.

Acquia is Becoming More Closed and Adobe is Becoming More Open

The interesting dynamic between Adobe AEM and Acquia, are both are becoming more similar. In fact, it is becoming more apparent that Acquia’s vision is to become a cheaper alternative to Adobe’s Marketing Cloud. CEO of Acquia, Tom Erickson revealed in a recent Reddit AMA, “Yes, Acquia has specifically targeted AEM, and we win more than 50% of the time that we are able to compete.”

Adobe, a Commercial WCM Built on Open Standards

Adobe Experience Manager is perhaps the most open, of any commercial WCM platform. It uses the CRX repository, which is Java/open standard-based. Apache WebSling and Apache Jackrabbit are additional open source web frameworks still used in AEM. This database is free and included in the AEM application, unlike other commercial competitors (Oracle, IBM, etc.) which charge licensing fees. Acquia’s Drupal database is also included for free.

The Adobe developer community, isn’t as large as Drupal’s 20,000 worldwide, but is just as dedicated to the platform. Adobe developers contribute to free code that can be used with the platform on GitHub, SourceForge and more. Help forums and Adobe developer blogs also contribute to an open Adobe developer community. New features and versions of the AEM software, are heavily influenced by the open source projects contributed by developers, users and conversations online. Adobe has outlined many other areas, AEM is aligned with open source and open standards on their blog.

Adobe Experience Manager also isn’t a completely closed platform. According to one Adobe developer, "AEM is probably the most complete out of the box solution going," Alkhafaji said. "You are going to find features, templates, integrations. But you still see agencies from Deliotte and Accenture to Valtech and Virtusa because it's still a generic product. Every product is going to use text components and image components, but if you're a bank you want to have a quote component, or if you're in healthcare you want to have a request-for-information component."

In addition to allowing for extensive customizations, Adobe Experience Manager allows for and even documents integrations when it competes with its own Marketing Cloud ecosystem. These integrations include Salesforce, popular for CRM and email marketing, SAP’s hybris for eCommerce and more.

Acquia’s CEO, Tom Erickson has criticized the push of a digital marketing ecosystem by large commercial vendors, citing in 2013:

“I’ve been watching Web Content Management vendors like Sitecore, Adobe, Oracle, and IBM attempt to buy (or build) everything-but-the-kitchen-sink into their products in order to try and win a feature war that customers don’t care about. Customers don’t want all-in-one suites, they want the flexibility to pick the right blend of technologies for their needs, and make sure these technologies are tightly integrated.”

Demand has shown that customers do seek all-in-one suites, yet to get there requires a long term roadmap of migrations. While Adobe offers the tightest integration within its own suite of products, it still supports and allows for third-party integrations.

Acquia’s Drupal, an Open Source CMS with Commercial Ambitions

In recent years, it’s clear Acquia has also realized the value of creating a digital marketing ecosystem of products. In 2014, it acquired TruCentric, to compete more nimbly with Adobe Marketing Cloud and offer comprehensive campaign management and integrations with CRM, social and email applications. Another point to make on TruCentric, is Acquia isn’t hesitant to acquire companies, vs. the typical open source approach - build the solution via a community of developers.

Acquia, was founded by the original creator of the open source Drupal platform, but is now a for profit business that was close to an IPO in 2015. In 2014, revenue reached $100 million. According to CEO, Tom Erickson, “we can’t do that anymore. We have to pretend like we’re not a private company.”

Other open source solutions, such as Automattic’s WordPress, seek investor funding to employ staff and grow adoption. Acquia is unique as an open source vendor, with behavior that matches commercial software companies by signaling for an IPO. Becoming public and responsive to shareholder demands, could further erode the open source values that Acquia so positively touts. Already, Acquia is causing conflict in the Drupal developer community, with many proponents of Drupal strongly believing in the free, open source principles of the platform.

Acquia is also closing down the selection of software for customers, by building pre-packaged Drupal solutions for specific verticals. Acquia is still maintaining the open source framework of Drupal, yet limiting the choice of options available to a package, aligning the product to a specific industry. This is a similar strategy Adobe Experience Manager and other commercial WCM platforms have implemented.

Not as Free as It Looks

While open source has one huge and obvious advantage – the software is free, at least upfront – the picture is much more complex than that.
Although Drupal is free, Acquia’s platform is not. As one online commentator put it, “Drupal is free like a puppy.” In 2015, Gartner in their evaluation of WCM vendors, recognized the disparity: “Acquia is more expensive than some companies believe when they initially seek open-source options, but customers still view Acquia's total cost of ownership favorably.”

Total cost of ownership is the only way to compare Adobe AEM to Acquia’s Drupal. The licensing fees for Adobe Experience Manager and Adobe Marketing Cloud largely depend on the business and which components are implemented. However, costs are near $250,000 to $1,000,000 and up annually. Gartner cautioned in 2015, “Adobe's WCM offering is one of the more expensive in the market, sometimes being twice the price of its nearest competitor.”

Acquia’s Drupal doesn’t charge a license fee to use the platform. However, pre-packaged solutions, access to Acquia Cloud hosting, developer support and outside consulting costs all contribute to a price tag for choosing Acquia’s Drupal.

The true cost of a WCM platform isn’t in yearly licensing, but implementation. Limiting the amount of customization and integrations needed on each platform saves companies the most money long term.

Some industries are better suited for Drupal, which has made inroads in the government sector. Retail brands tend to be more aligned with AEM’s out of the box functionality. The vision of AEM is to empower marketing and design teams, eliminating the need for developers in most instances of content and asset creation. This vision directly aligns with B2C organizations and can save costs in ongoing development.

In contrast, Drupal was originally built by and for other developers as a robust WCM platform. The user experience for marketers and designers, although improved by Acquia’s enhancements, under meets non-developer expectations.

Adobe has also been criticized for underselling the cost of implementation and time to deployment. Most projects take six months to a year. Both Acquia and Adobe recommend choosing a skilled partner with certified developers, which comes at an additional price.

Sometimes the cost of implementation boils down to the coding language itself, JAVA or PHP?

  1. Which language does your development team have experience with?
  2. Will your current team be able to support a system built in JAVA or PHP?
  3. How well will your legacy systems integrate with your WCM platform? What will be the cost to migrate and connect all of your systems together?

Although only Adobe requires a licensing fee, both Acquia and Adobe require customization which leads to a bigger share of total cost of ownership. Only after demoing each platform can the needs of your organization be evaluated and a TCO be determined.

An Elephant in the Room, The Midmarket

The licensing fees for commercial WCM are high, as a result many small and mid-market companies automatically default to open source solutions. When it comes to evaluation of Acquia’s Drupal to Adobe Experience Manager, a primary battleground in 2016 will be the midmarket.

According to Investopedia, the term “middle market” means, “A company with sizeable annual revenue, ranging from $50 million to $1 billion.” Then Investopedia goes on to admit, “The limits that define a mid-market company are not set, with some definitions setting the lower limit for annual revenues as low as $10 million, while others set the upper limit at $500 million.”

Mid-market has always been an ambiguous term. Price will continue to strongly influence which option, open source Acquia or Adobe AEM is best for smaller mid-market organizations.

In a 2015 survey titled, The Future of Open Source, cost wasn’t the only factor that made OSS continue to be attractive.

“95 percent of respondents noted that a turbulent economy continues to be “good” for OSS, though for the first year ever, lower cost has been overtaken by freedom from vendor lock-in as what makes OSS more attractive”

To be fair, vendor lock in happens regardless of which WCM platform is chosen. Although there are required licensing fees paid annually to Adobe for use of their software, one cannot simply stop paying Acquia for Cloud hosting or fire all internal Drupal developers. Migration from Acquia to another platform would still cost significant money and resources. WCM is always an ongoing investment, and choosing a platform is no easy decision.

Both Have Teeth in the Game

Many well recognized global brands use Adobe AEM, including Nike, MGM Resorts, UniCredit Group and Audi. But what about mid-market companies? Some, such as MEDHOST and have publically adopted Adobe Experience Manager.

Acquia has a variety of mid-market and small businesses on the platform, many are in the non-profit, government and education industries.

In Gartner’s 2015 evaluation of vendors, they noted “Acquia's Drupal may be too complex for organizations needing relatively simple WCM capability. Its complexity, when compared with alternative options, may make it unsuitable for some midmarket organizations.”

Adobe Experience Manager could also be considered too robust for some of the mid-market. Only recently in 2015, did Adobe announce a mid-market solution for Adobe Experience Manager – AEM Sites. AEM Sites allows for fast cloud deployment and a cost structure more aligned with the mid-market.

At 6dGlobal, we have created our own onboarding process, 6D Kickstart for midmarket companies evaluating AEM. Kickstart limits the time and cost for implementation, both primary drivers for a total cost of ownership of AEM.

In spite of Adobe targeting the mid-market, Acquia created a viral blogpost, questioning why mid-market companies would even consider Adobe Experience Manager. The answer? Companies looking ahead and growth oriented, realize the importance and cost of a commercial CMS. A mid-market company is simply defined by yearly revenue, and can easily compete with and require an enterprise software solution.

Take which launched in 2015 with an ambitious mission, compete with for bulk goods and become the online Costco and Sam’s Club. By revenue, is mid-market and isn’t yet profit positive. However, Jet required an enterprise WCM and eCommerce solution to power a vast suite of products being sold nationwide.

Additionally, Adobe’s vision of building a marketer driven platform contrasts with Acquia’s developer-centric Drupal. Many mid-market companies will look past price to seek performance and scale of a suite of digital marketing solutions.


The decision between a commercial and open source WCM system is no easy task, even when focused on Adobe Experience Manager and Acquia’s Drupal.

There are several important points worth re-visiting in this evaluation of AEM to open source solutions:

  1. Adobe Experience Manager is regarded as a leading web experience platform, much more than a WCM.
  2. Open source WCM powers much of the web, but only Acquia’s Drupal is capable of meeting mid-market and enterprise business demands as of 2016.
  3. Acquia’s Drupal is one of the fastest growing WCM platforms in the enterprise, but this is largely due to a late start (2013).
  4. Acquia’s Drupal is still in infancy for creating a digital marketing ecosystem of products to directly undercut Adobe Marketing Cloud in price.Acquia’s Drupal lacks as tight of an integration and features a lackluster user experience aligned with developers, not designers or marketers.
  5. Acquia is no more open source, than Adobe Experience Manager. Both are commercial software solutions, built on open standards. Both allow for deep integration with competing products and are aimed at building an ecosystem of digital solutions fueled by a dedicated community of developers.
  6. Total Cost of Ownership is needed to evaluate the free software licensing model of Acquia’s Drupal to Adobe Experience Manager. The price difference is largely driven on the business, internal staff, aspirations and more.
  7. Price shouldn’t be the primary driver in WCM selection regardless of an enterprise or mid-market business. Instead, alignment of the platform to the goals of the business and customers offers the best comparison.
  8. Adobe’s new mid-market solution, AEM Sites combined with 6D Global’s Kickstart, offer an easier implementation of Adobe AEM for the mid-market.