Choosing an eCommerce platform can be a long and difficult process, whether it’s a replatforming exercise, a completely new build or anything in between. Aside from just building business and functional requirements and looking at TCO etc, coming up with a shortlist of potential platforms typically involves looking at in-house teams and resources (both technical and operational), their availability, and how much control and flexibility is required both short-term and long-term.
One of the biggest decisions, particularly in more recent times, is whether to move to a more agile SaaS provider (or proprietary managed platform) or to consider some of the open source offerings that are available within the mid-market and enterprise space. This often comes down to IT decision-makers – with the openness of the platform, hosting considerations and general ownership of the software all being key areas to consider.
What is an open source eCommerce platform?
An open source eCommerce platform is a platform where the source code is freely available for developers, allowing for free usage and customisation – often developed and supported collaboratively. Most open source platforms generally have at least some level of community development, which is often why companies will decide to offer it as an open source solution. Magento, for example, is highly community-led these days and a high proportion of new features and bug fixes (multi-source inventory being a very good example), are coming from community members as opposed to internal teams. The open source and premium model has been a successful strategy for Magento, with several other providers, such as Shopware and Workarea, now following suit.
Often, the open source version of the platform (should they have multiple versions), will feature less functionality (such as multi-store architecture, visual merchandising capabilities, enhanced content management etc) and / or no application support. All three platforms mentioned above, now offer cloud versions of their platform (as a PaaS), which are included in the premium proposition.
Pros / advantages of an open source eCommerce platform
There are lots of benefits to using an open source eCommerce platform, or any open source technology – some of which are:
Full access to the code and core features / extensibility
Making extending the platform easier and broader. An example of this could how lots of users customise Magento to allow for things like better multi-channel integration, complex integrations with third parties, mixed basket implementations, marketplace capabilities etc. These are just a few examples that would be far more complex or not possible with a lot of the comparative SaaS platforms. A more specific example could be extending the RMA module within Magento.
Price / cost of ownership
As open source platforms are free, there’s often at least an argument for a low cost of ownership, depending on other variables around the merchant and the setup. The reason that this isn’t clean cut is because of costs around maintenance, hosting, upgrades etc – which can often add up to more than the licensing of competitor SaaS platforms.
With flexibility and agility in areas such as the catalog, users, orders, features etc, open source platforms allow businesses to scale their platform alongside their business needs.. Overheads in terms of development work and managing infrastructure will incur, however, there are endless examples of sites that have been built to scale through open source eCommerce technology.
With an open source eCommerce platform, merchants have full control over the source code, server setup, back-end functionality / setup and everything else. You’re essentially free to customise or adapt your platform as you see fit to meet functionality or business requirements.
Community around the platform
Generally, open source platforms attract a strong community of developers, who are able to build modules and customise existing code to extend the platform. Magento is arguably one of the greatest examples of a community-led software solution in the world – with thousands of developers contributing to the platform and eco-system.
Volume of users / merchant eco-system
Though not always the case – with Shopify arguably the strongest eco-system – as a general rule of thumb, open source technologies are more likely to have a higher volume of users and, as a result, an active eco-system.
No license cost
Generally, open source platforms won’t incur license costs, which is often very appealing. That being said, operating costs for open source platforms can be higher, so businesses are advised to consider all ongoing costs, rather than just the initial, prior to making a decision.
Risks and disadvantages of using an open source e-commerce platform
Even a mention of open source as an option for enterprise retailers is often enough to set alarm bells ringing in some organisations. Complete control over the code and standards of an application is not something that suits every business and many people are fearful that open source equates to bug-ridden, insecure, or hard to maintain platforms. One risk (that’s also a pro) with an open source platform is that developers are free to edit the core of the platform as they see fit – which often ends up causing long-term issues around maintainability and stability. This is why it’s important to build a team around an individual or small team who fully understand the open source platform, the codebase and the potential issues that can arise.
Although there are lots of positives for using an open source eCommerce platform, there are also a number of negatives, which I see as:
Although open source eCommerce platforms can of course be secured, the nature of the software inherently opens up the platforms to potential risks, with anyone being able to access the core code. The issues here come from not putting the right processes and levels of investment in this area, as it can be a very big risk – particularly for the more mainstream platforms like Magento. The volume of users around some of these platforms also makes them a good target for hackers.
Generally, due to the added complexity and often bespoke-ness of open source platforms, more maintenance may be required when it comes to upgrades, major releases etc.
Most retailers who use an open source platform will customise in places – be it via the front-end, custom modules, integrations etc – this has a knock-on impact on costs and maintenance time overheads. Integrations also require more customisation and the likelihood of ‘plug-and-play’ is reduced.
With open source platforms, there’s unlikely to be any platform-level support, which is to be expected. This doesn’t always add too much value anyway, but for many businesses, available support equals peace-of-mind. Some platforms, such as Shopware, allow for platform-level support, and Magento have a professional services team who can work with the Open Source version of the platform, however, in both cases it means additional costs.
Often decision-makers are more concerned that the application won’t be kept secure, which is a risk, particularly with some of the more mainstream platform options. Again, this comes down to the right person or team being responsible for the security of the platform and ensuring that it’s sufficiently locked down and the right practices are maintained. Things like IP whitelisting, application of all security patches, 2FA for access to the back-end etc are examples of very straightforward principles that should be applied.
Here are what I consider to be the top open source eCommerce platforms on the market:
Easily the best-known open-source eCommerce platform in the world, Magento is also the biggest, with more than 250,000 online stores powered by the platform. Formerly known as Magento Community, this open-source offering is functionally very rich, with a long history going back to 2008. In earlier versions, there wasn’t a huge difference in terms of functionality between Magento Open Source and Magento Commerce, but since the launch of Magento 2, the differences have become much more marked, with the open source version missing out on features such as PageBuilder, content staging and preview, and visual merchandising.
That doesn’t mean that Magento Open Source is not a good fit for many enterprise merchants though, as it remains relatively easy to bolt-on any missing functionality, using third party solutions and modules. With a strong team or agency partner in place, it should be possible to get the best out of the open source nature of this platform, whilst effectively plugging any gaps with alternative, or bespoke, solutions. Some examples of large Magento Open Source merchants include Brand Alley, PMT Music, PrettyLittleThing and there are lots more.
One of the main draws for Magento Open Source (when compared against other platforms) is the enormous ecosystem of third-party developers and certified partners, offering a huge range of additional functionality and services to expand on the core feature set of Magento. It’s true that a portion of that ecosystem is more targeted at the SMB end of the eCommerce market, but things have changed a lot in recent years, and there is now a strong and healthy network of third-party providers who are targeting enterprise clients instead.
The transition to Magento 2 represents a big change for Magento, and both an opportunity and a threat. As yet, only a relatively low proportion of Magento Open Source users have made the move to Magento 2 (said to be around 12,000). The others are either putting off a necessary replatforming exercise (since Magento 2 is fundamentally different in structure and coding from Magento 1), or they are taking the withdrawal of support for Magento 1, as an opportunity to move to another platform entirely – and only time will tell which option is the case for the majority of users. The second potential issue that could affect Magento Open Source’s future is Adobe’s acquisition of Magento, back in 2018 for $1.68 billion. It remains to be seen what Adobe will decide for the future of the entire Magento platform, let alone the Open Source version.
I also wrote this piece comparing Magento Commerce and Open Source editions.
Just like Magento, Workarea is available in two versions – as an open source core product (which is new and was only introduced earlier this year) to be developed and extended by clients, developers and agency partners – or as Workarea Commerce Cloud – a cloud-based SaaS solution, which includes premium features on top of the core Workaarea product, such as support for subscriptions, multi-store and B2B functionality.
It’s only recently that Workarea has started gaining traction as an agency partner-led eCommerce platform – previously operating as an agency with a proprietery solution (formerly known as Weblinc). Workarea has also only recently started to become known outside of the US, following their repositioning itself with an open source/SaaS combination offering. Lots of development partners I speak with are very interested in Workarea and I’m expecting their presence to continue to grow, as it’s a very strong platform. Some big retailers are starting to come on board too, including Lonely Planet, Reformation and Bouqs and, again, I think this will just continue to grow with their very compelling set of native features and a really strong team building out the product.
Workarea also has a very impressive and modern tech stack, using Ruby on Rails, MongoDB, ElasticSearch and Redis to deliver a mobile-first, API-friendly commerce platform that is feature-rich, easy to use and highly flexible.
Some of the impressive features in the open source version of the product include advanced and highly configurable search (with built-in machine learning), impressive visual merchandising capabilities, excellent content management features, a strong promotions engine, content scheduling and lots more. Looking solely at native features, Workarea is one of the most impressive platforms I’ve seen and sits in a similar position as Salesforce Commerce Cloud.
I also wrote this introductory review of the Workarea Commerce Cloud product.
Shopware is a longstanding PHP-based eCommerce platform with a huge user base in Germany, with users including Haribo, Khiel’s, L’Oreal, Aston Martin, Euronics etc. Shopware also entered the UK market a couple of years ago, creating a lot of attention and winning some good clients, including 31Dover, Shoes for Crews, MyWalit, Hughes.co.uk, Ellisons and various others.
Following this move into the UK, Shopware announced the introduction of a new version (Shopware 6), which is based on a more modern technology stack, using Symfony and Vue.js and developed as an API-first platform. Shopware has over 250 active GitHub contributors and an established community of users and supporters, as well as a network of more than 1,200 partners. As with most of the other platforms in this article, Shopware has different versions – with Community being the free version and then three premium versions, which are Professional Edition, Professional Plus and Enterprise.
Shopware Enterprise offers all of the functionality of the regular Shopware product, as well as a number of other features, including support for B2B commerce, marketplace functionality and a flexible pricing engine.
Shopware’s (recently updated) admin interface is clean and easy to use, offering retailers a straightforward solution for managing their stores, with no need for lengthy staff training or support. There’s also a sophisticated rule builder, for customising anything from prices to content. The Shopping Experiences component allows users to build fully customised landing pages, product pages and content, without requiring a developer or designer – this has been one of the biggest selling points for Shopware historically and it’s a lot more polished than a lot of the page building solutions available in other platforms. This is a fully international-ready platform that supports multi-currency and multi-language, with support for things like complex tax and shipping too. Shopware has always been compared to Magento, with a very similar feature-set, open source roots and with it being PHP-based.
I first came across Sylius about 5-6 years, whilst working for Inviqa and even back then, I was very impressed with both the founder and what the platform was trying to do. The ultra-modern tech-centric eCommerce platform isn’t for the faint-hearted and, to date, Sylius has mostly been adopted by clients in a headless capacity (and was one of the first API-first platforms on the market, alongside the likes of Moltin). The Sylius framework is again built on Symfony and, in addition to its technical prowess, has some very impressive looking features, including support for international and multi-channel trading, RMA processing and extensive catalog management tools. The simplistic, API-first nature of Sylius makes it relatively easy to integrate with other systems and to be rapidly scalable and extensible.
It has to be said, however, that Sylius currently lacks strong ecosystem that surrounds many of the other enterprise-grade open source eCommerce platforms on the market, and this could mean that resource requirements for ongoing development work are higher than with other platforms. In my experience, Sylius has mostly been looked at by IT teams and CTOs, as part of a move to a modern technology stack and, quite often, Symfony. Some of Sylius’s clients include Reiss, Atletico Bilbao and POPSUGAR.
Whilst there are plenty of open source eCommerce platforms offering B2B support alongside a core B2C feature set, OroCommerce is different in that it is exclusively a B2B platform. It was developed by some of the original team behind Magento, so it has some heavyweight experience backing it. With a reputation for being technically sound and for an excellent level of support, it has a strong feature set that has won many admirers.
Those features include comprehensive support for account management, personalised product catalogs and pricing, a strong CMS and plenty of tailored reports that are geared towards B2B needs.
Since B2B merchants don’t generally enjoy the household name status of enterprise retailers, there are few recognisable names on the OroCommerce client list, but success stories include Animal Supply, Shell, Trigano, Game World and Mephisto.
I’ve heard of reaction commerce quite a lot over the last couple of years, but I don’t know as much about it as I do most of the other platforms on this list – but what I have heard has generally been very positive. Headquartered in Santa Monica, but with a distributed workforce, Reaction Commerce pitches itself as a fresh approach to eCommerce platform development and, again, it’s most commonly deployed in a headless manner.
This reaction commerce platform is lean and easy to extend or configure, with lots of the core functionality most merchants require out of the box. Although they do have some existing integrations, most third parties will need to be integrated from scratch – which does have some pros, as well as cons (around cost and time mainly). The tech stack behind Reaction Commerce is based on GraphQL, Next.js, Docker and React, and the modular approach to the platform means that it can grow and evolve alongside the eCommerce market, rather than becoming outdated.
Clients include Stephen Kenn, Ninety Plus Wine, Dispatch Coffee and hop.exchange, but the real poster-child client so far is the UK’s Sports Direct.
Hopefully, this round-up of some of the more commonly used mid-market and enterprise open source eCommerce platforms, has demonstrated that there is plenty of choice available for merchants looking in this direction, with new entrants and potential game-changers coming into the space. Magento may be the market leader in the enterprise open source eCommerce platform space, but some of the other platforms listed here have very compelling offerings – particularly Workarea and OroCommerce.
If you’re looking for an open source platform, you’re likely going to be looking to extend / customise it and build something to fit your business – which is where each of these platforms are strong and more than capable. Magento is also the leader when it comes to having an eco-system (agency partners, developers and existing integrations), but again this isn’t always a good thing.
If you have any questions around these platforms or have any others you think should be featured, please feel free to email me or add to the comments below.