Tuesday 11 August 2009

Who owns the codebase my site runs on

Problems with customers not understanding the technology they purchase

The other day I wrote an article about problems that arise when customers try to implement SEO strategy for their sites through 3rd parties only to find that they cannot implement any of the recommendations due to restrictions on the application they have purchased.

Only a couple of days after that post another instance occurred at the company I work for. A company had bought a site from us which was a product that has a shared codebase which is hosted by my company. They then went out and hired someone to work for them whose job would be to edit the sites code and optimise the SEO. This would be fine if the company owned the codebase the site was written in, hosted it themselves or even had access to the files but this customer didn't have any of that. The customer was pretty upset when we tried to explain to him that all he had was a licence to run his website on our codebase but its totally up to the customer to understand fully what they are purchasing and what they can and cannot do in terms of the code before buying it. They especially need to know this if they are going down the route of paying 3rd parties to do work on the site.

I cannot discuss contractual details or any problems or misunderstandings that a customer may or may not have had when they signed up for the site in the first place as I don't know however I do know that the reason our company is successful and can roll new sites out quickly at a low cost is down to our system setup which involves a shared codebase (core web files and Database).

Customers get what they pay for and we can charge very competitive prices due to our setup which involves a lot of configurable options but not full control or ownership of the code. Even though we have a shared codebase each site can have a totally unique design and layout, all the wording and messages are customisable as well as the input fields on the core pages. Customers also have a CMS system to add their own pages and content. However its a complex system behind the scenes and we would never allow 3rd parties to edit our source code.

If a customer does want a copy of the source code and database so that they have full control then they are welcome to pay for that as well as the server(s) to run it from. However they will then be looking at a cost at least 5-10 times of that they currently pay for their site setup. You cannot expect to purchase a systems source code that has taken 4 years development work for the same cost as the product itself.

If you want to have full control over the codebase and pay next to nothing then you can go down that road as there is plenty of open source software about that people give away. You can download a free Joomla site off the web and have fun modifying it for the next year or two until you have all the features a fully tested site would have. It can run on a free MySQL database that runs fine with one user but locks up when you have 250,000 hits a day due to the default table types still being set to MyISAM and none of the tables will be indexed correctly at all so it will perform tricks like a dog on Valium.

I could go on to talk about customers sending over random PHP scripts for message boards that they expect us to just add on to their system build in ASP but I will end my rant here. If any existing customers or potential customers are reading this just take one thing from this post and that is to ensure that when you are buying a website or any kind of software system from a development company that you fully understand what is and what is not within your control to change.

  • Do you own the rights to the source code or do you just have a licence to use the code on your site.
  • If you don't own the rights to the source code is it still possible to modify the code or send customised code to the development team to add to your site.
  • If the answer is yes then what language is the system built in and what type of servers does it run on.
  • Do you have FTP or Terminal Service access to the web servers or can you only modify pages through a CMS system.
  • Is it possible to rename filenames for SEO reasons or is it a shared codebase that is untouchable.

These are the questions you need to ask and its in your own best interest to know the answers.

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