May 20th 2021

The pros and cons of open source for ecommerce

In 2003, the SARS outbreak saw a surge in people afraid to go outside and so start to shop online. Skip forward to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and we saw the stockpiling of essential items, as well as many shops being forced to close their doors and become digital.

Supermarket delivery sites were overwhelmed as they had not been designed to cope with a surge in online sales, opening the door for other retailers to offer these, and a wider scope of products, to consumers. The shopping landscape has changed for businesses on a global scale over the past 18 months, and many have undergone rapid digital transformation in order to ease pressures from a fall in high street sales.

Some retailers looked to open source as a way of supporting this transformation. But how easy is it to implement? Has it transformed the ecommerce landscape to make fast growth accessible to more businesses?

Babel looks at the pros and cons of open source for retail:

1. Customisable

Source code is made freely available, meaning businesses undergoing digital transformation in the retail sector can be up and running online and looking professional in a short amount of time. Sites like GitLab offer access to community resources and components that are published under an MIT open source licence that are available to download. Open source is ready-made and the user has full access to code, meaning it can be modified and adapted to fit very specific user requirements, though these changes are best handled by a certified developer. Arguably, this is the biggest ‘pro’ of open source software, the flexibility it provides – creating an agile business environment, limited only by your imagination.

2. Security

The readily-available nature of open source does however open up businesses to security breaches if they are not totally sure what it is that they are looking at. Yes, it is amazing – being able to have access to a library of materials that are downloadable and ready to use. However, there are risks associated with this, especially with ecommerce being a hotbed for financial data. Caution should be taken when adding new elements to a site; businesses should follow industry best practice when implementing new elements of code so they are not putting themselves at risk of a potential cyber-attack or data-breach. At Babel, we are proud to work with cybersecurity clients at the forefront of the industry. We’re therefore well aware of the need for ecommerce brands utilising open source to start assessing security in a rapidly changing, digital world.

  1. Maintenance

Open source platforms are complex, powerful and promote innovative thinking. They do however come with high costs, particularly when it comes to maintenance. The more an ecommerce store is modified, the more difficult it becomes to look after. A tricky concept for retail businesses that are not used to being wholly reliant on technology to survive. The changing nature of Covid-19 has meant prolonged store closures and infrequent re-openings, causing retailers who are already facing the pressure and can’t afford to invest loads of extra money into maintenance, to constantly update their online presence.

Think of it like building a house – then realising after a couple of years that you need to build an extension, double the height, or more! You didn’t want the extension, don’t know how long you will need it, or how secure it is… Open source maintenance is tough because the developers aren’t obligated to provide updates, security patches or functionality upgrades. In fact, as many as 80.2% of developers in 2019 said they code as a hobby, so they are less likely to want to provide updates on a commercial scale or fix code originally made for a project that wasn’t intended to be scaled up for business.

In conclusion, open source has many benefits when used within an ecommerce business. Steps should be taken when deciding whether it is the right approach for your business before embedding anything into an online store. Security checks should be carried out on the software components for any vulnerabilities that could put a business and its customers at risk of data breaches!

We’re proud to work with clients who specialise in open source and cybersecurity here at Babel. We love building meaningful campaigns and if you’re interested in learning how we could help you to become a part of the conversation, it would be great to hear from you!


Rob Shrimpton
Rob Shrimpton Consultant