Wordpress & Open-Source vs Software-as-a-Service alternatives: when is SaaS better?

Open-source or SaaS, which is better?

If you’re reviewing your charity’s digital systems or looking to create a new website you are faced with various decisions. An important and reasonably long-term decision is your choice of technology. And at the heart of that decision is whether to choose open-source or a Software as a Service (SaaS) platform.

In this post, we explain what these terms mean, the core differences between them and under which circumstances you should choose each one.

Open-source explained

Open-source means that the core code of the software is freely available. 
The principle behind the open-source is that by sharing code a global community can make bigger, better software that lots of people can benefit from.

Wordpress, Drupal and Joomla are the three most popular open-source content management systems for creating websites.

An open-source system is very powerful in the hands of an experienced developer and can be customised heavily to create a very bespoke website. Larger organisations choose this approach as it offers them greater flexibility. But, of course, it comes at a price.

Although open-source software is freely available it is certainly not free to use. The costs involved in configuring, setting up, hosting and supporting open-source software can easily escalate, especially with custom requirements. For small websites, some providers offer free website hosting for charities

Software as a Service (SaaS) explained

SaaS is a term that refers to a cloud-based software platform offering full access for a simple monthly subscription. It’s usually a multi-tenant system, which means lots of people make use of a common code-base and the only thing that makes their instance unique is the content and data. Setup fees are often low or nothing at all. Support and updates are much simpler as this is all taken care of at a platform level with nothing for you to update or patch.

We all use SaaS products every day and, arguably, it's the future of all web software. Household names in SaaS products include Gmail, Dropbox, Trello, Zendesk, Slack, Salesforce, PayPal and eBay.

SaaS has revolutionised many areas of software by offering unprecedented simplicity, ease of use, remote access, speed and reliability.

There are now dedicated SaaS products serving almost every need imaginable. It’s for this reason that SaaS is also a very credible alternative to open-source when building a website. As long as you can find a product that fits your needs you can save a lot of money and hassle.

Read our list of cloud-based SaaS website building apps.

Read a more in-depth explanation of SaaS

What should charities care about?

In this section, we focus on in the things that really matter to charities choosing website software and how open-source and SaaS compare against each criterion. To summarise, the key criteria to look for are as follows:

Setup costs



Guide cost: £0 - £4k
SaaS platforms are developed for a specific target market and purpose. If you can organise your content yourself, setup could be free. If you want professional help it could cost £1k - £4k.
Guide cost: £5k - £20k
Open-source software is very generic and versatile by design. This means it can be quite costly to configure to suit your needs. Setup costs for an open-source website for a medium-sized charity could range from £5k - £20k. It can be cheaper if you take a DIY route. 


Support and hosting



Guide cost: £20 - £100/m
The bulk of the hosting, maintenance and security updates can be carried out very efficiently at a platform level. With a simpler system you are likely to need less support time which helps to make the fees cheaper. You may not get phone support though. 
Guide cost: £100 - £200/m
A custom website, looked after by an independent agency, will need more attention and some manual updating. A good agency will provide excellent customer service and be happy to talk to you anytime.


Supplier dependence



Dependent on platform
You are dependent on the continued existence of the SaaS platform. You may be able to export your content but you won't be able to move your website hosting provider.
Free to move
In theory, you have the ability to change both hosting platform and developer freely as long as you can find someone willing to take on the support and hosting of your website.





Fewer, but more refined options
By focusing on specific use-cases, it’s common for SaaS platforms to offer fewer integrations but they will be done neatly and simply. You may not be able to easily integrate with uncommon or specialist systems.
Lots of basic options
With a wide range of plugins, it’s possible to find some level of integration with most systems though it may not be elegant and may require a developer to implement.


Ease of use



Best for non-technical users
SaaS platforms usually have highly refined interfaces designed for specific users that are easy to use and the same for all platform users.
Aimed at developers
Like the public-facing website, the admin interface needs customising by a developer to become user-friendly. It can also vary greatly from website to website.





Focussed and not customisable
Platform functionality will be defined by and often limited to the needs of the core user-base. If the platform fits your needs this is good but custom functionality won’t be possible.
Flexible and customisable
While very flexible, with a range of core and third-party plugins, open-source software requires experienced developers to customise to your needs. 


Security and stability



Auto updates
Security updates are installed automatically at a platform level.
Manual updates
Some automation possible but often security updates must be applied manually to individual sites. These updates can sometimes break existing custom functionality.
Low risk of hacking
The code is not publicly available so not as common a target.
Variable risk of hacking
The code is publicly available and often a target. Sites are very vulnerable if security updates are not installed promptly.
Platform-level security
A breach would affect all platform users so security will be a high priority for the platform.
Site-level security
Responsibility is taken at site-level. A breach would only affect you.
Stability affects all clients
The platform is highly incentivised to maintain high standards. 
Stability affects only your website
This is dependent on your choice of developer and hosting solution.


Future development



New features for free
As the SaaS provider launches new features these will be automatically available to you, usually at no extra cost. The cost of this development is shared among all users of the SaaS platform through the subscription model.
New features commissioned
Any new features you require must be pro-actively scoped out and implemented by a developer using available plugins or custom code. You will pay for this work directly.

New features limited
Most SaaS platforms focus on a core user-base and will therefore only add features that are useful for the majority to avoid the software becoming bloated or over-complicated. 

New features unlimited
With contributions from developers all over the world, there is no shortage of ideas and plugins for open-source technology.
Features are fully tested
When features are added, you can often be confident that they have been very thoroughly tested.
You need to test new features
Not all plugins are tested and maintained to high standards so any code you add from third parties can increase your long-term support liability. You should allow time and  budget for your own testing.


Our recommendations summary

When to choose SaaS

When to choose Open-source

Choose SaaS if you have:

  • common requirements
  • a small budget for the setup
  • no need for custom work
  • low technical knowledge
  • little need for integrations

or if you want...

  • less hassle managing updates
  • new features at no cost

Choose Open-source if you have...

  • unusual requirements
  • a large budget for the setup
  • budget for incremental work
  • a trusted developer
  • good technical knowledge

or if you want...

  • maximum control
  • new features on request

Read more about our charity website design services or check out our SaaS website platform for charities.

9 October 2017
Owen Roseblade