The Pitfalls of Free Open Source Ecommerce Systems

PitfallsWhen you’re in the initial planning phases of setting up an ecommerce site, selecting a platform is a daunting challenge. There are dozens of software solutions out there. Going through each one’s benefits and features is a timely, painstaking exercise. One key factor in choosing an ecommerce system is price. Package pricing is generally based around business size, and some platforms are designed to work specifically with enterprise companies. And then you have your free open source ecommerce solutions. If you’re in a small startup business, the word “FREE” is going to catch your attention. “I get to put my products on the web for free? What could possibly go wrong?” Actually, a lot can.

Support and Hosting

One of the main problems with choosing a free ecommerce platform is that you are mostly on your own when it comes to running and hosting it. Sure, a number of open source ecommerce systems boast having active communities full of development support. In most instances, however, these developers are not going to hold your hand as you go through all your problems. Say that you’re gearing up for the holiday season and something breaks. One of the few things you can do in this case is submit a post to the ecommerce system’s community forum, pray for the best, and hit F5 a bunch of times. It’s worth noting that some open source platforms offer support at a price. This may prove expensive in the long run since some lock you into contracts, while others charge a costly rate per each incident.

With paid ecommerce services, you often have the luxury of a full support staff. These people can work with you at the start to assess your needs and help you build and customize your site. Companies also have professional design staff on board to make your site look as crisp as you want it to be. Lastly, if you think you might run into issues, a dedicated customer service rep is available to work with you. Knowing that someone is out there to definitely support you can help you sleep at night.

Additionally, most paid ecommerce platforms take care of all the hosting operations. The big ecommerce paid services like Shopify and Magento Enterprise work with thousands of companies that are enterprise in scale. These companies attract millions of hits during the holiday season and can withstand the sheer amount of traffic for their ecommerce fronts. As a result, you know that you can trust these paid services, as opposed to choosing a potentially risky no-name hosting service for your open source installation. Selecting your own hosting service will probably be cheaper, but in the event that it goes down during a sale or promotion, can you afford to risk having all that revenue potential go elsewhere? Sticking with paid ecommerce sites is a proven turnkey solution for hosting and support.

Choices, Choices, Choices

Continuing on the topic of paid ecommerce platforms being sturdy, proven solutions, open source ecommerce platforms are designed with flexibility and functionality options in mind. Instead of just using a (mostly) standardized program in a paid ecommerce service, you need to pick and choose the extensions and modules you want to put on your site. These items are essential, as a number of open source platforms offer low levels of out of the box functionality. The sheer amount of customization may seem appealing at first, but then you realize that most open source ecommerce marketplaces carry thousands of usable features. You’re going to spend a lot of time researching each one. Additionally, you need to select an appealing site theme and somehow tie webpage functionality and appearance together. What results is a trial by error sequence in which you try to connect a number of third party solutions together.

So say that you have your assortment of modules and themes laid out. You’re ready to go, and everything looks perfect. You launch. All of a sudden, you receive a notification that tells you that a new version of your ecommerce program just came out. Smart money tells you that you should upgrade immediately, but what you need to keep in the back of your head is that all store modules and themes are configured to work with stable ecommerce platform builds. If you just automatically hit the upgrade button for your installation, you might break your store completely. To further complicate things, new builds usually mean new features and, more importantly, new security fixes. You’re going to have to walk a fine line between functionality and security.

Security, or Lack Thereof

Open source technology by nature is out in the open for everyone to use and examine. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone, including malicious hackers and exploiters. In a recent ecommerce study at the University of California, Davis, a group sat down with open source ecommerce platform osCommerce to test it for security holes. The group went through the code and discovered that some of the payment modules offered in the marketplace were vulnerable to logic attacks, allowing members to purchase goods below the listed price or at no cost at all. One group member in particular was able to change a shop’s default British pound currency to American dollars with a few changes to HTTP requests. Because this was just a study, the researchers refunded the vendors their items, but it is scary that anyone with enough time and skill can dismantle a platform used by more than 14,000 online shops.

There’s been actual precedent for wide-scale hacker attacks on open source platforms. In 2011, over 4,500,000 million osCommerce pages were infected with malicious code. Not only did these attacks impact stores’ functionality, but they also hurt store brands since customers were exposed to malware. The cause behind this was that these shops failed to upgrade their platform to the new release.


While open source ecommerce platforms do have substantial issues, there are some benefits to using them. Yes they are free, but you have a lot of control over your store’s appearance and many options for your site’s functionality. Perhaps if you are in a small startup that is willing to take a risk on its ecommerce operations, open source is the way to go. However, if you are in a mid-sized or enterprise company with the need for a proven high-performance platform, paid ecommerce would be more appealing. If large brands like Fiji Water, Nike, and The North Face rely on a certain platform, you should be pretty safe using the same one in the long run.

You also need to keep in mind that open source ecommerce systems require investments of a different sort, namely time and skill. Unless you already have a large amount of IT and web skill, you’re going to need to either hit the books or hire someone else to handle your ecommerce operations. Do you think you have the knowledge and skill to take care of platform and module versioning, layout design, troubleshooting, hosting, and installation? If you feel any hesitation at all, it is smarter money to leave your ecommerce needs to the professionals and signup for a paid service.

Published by

Joseph Yi

Since he was a freshman in college, Joseph has worked in several internet startup companies and has developed campaigns and digital strategies for Fortune 500 companies and brands including the Los Angeles Lakers, Manchester City FC, the Oakland Raiders, Sephora, and Whole Foods.

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