Much ink has been spilled about which open-source ecommerce platform is the “best.” Most comparisons perpetuate what is typically an easy (but usually incorrect) way of understanding these two platforms and whether they are a fit for your business. They are often compared like word processors based on line item comparisons of features instead of powerful business growth engines and visible brand extensions that they are. To limit them to nothing more than published feature sets or architectural comparisons is foolish, unhelpful, and often leads companies down the wrong path. A better approach is to fully understand your current and future business requirements and make a decision based on which solution can serve those needs the best.
At a high level, the most important thing to ask is “do you know what you want and how you want it done?” If you don’t know what you want, then you will likely consider a tool with lots of features out of the box. The tradeoff is that those features come with assumptions that are set in stone. While lots of prepackaged features may feel good now, you risk not being able to adapt as quickly as your competitors or the possibility that modifying those features will lead to incompatibilities down the road. The alternative is a framework where you get a larger feature set and with fewer assumptions. The tradeoff here is that you have more work to do to get off the ground—planning and implementing the exact features and experience you want—but with endless flexibility to mold a solution that exactly meets current and future business requirements. Trying to compare these solutions through features alone just won’t do.
Let’s take a step back from the deeply rooted (and borderline religious) discussion of frameworks and function sets, and examine at a higher level both Drupal Commerce and Magento. For business owners who are trying to figure out what’s best for them and anyone who has any experience with either technology, let’s talk about what really makes Drupal Commerce different from Magento. Let’s get away from discussions about classes, architecture, benchmarks, features, etc. and instead, talk about each solution and objectively what problems they solve and which they do not.
To start off, I’d like to restate a quote (attribute to Adobe SE leads) from Bryan House’s “Competing with Giants” presentation from DrupalCon Denver:
If you are looking at both (Adobe) CQ5 and Drupal, then one of us is in the wrong place.
This quote struck me. It sank deep into my soul. In a way, once I let the weight of these words really take hold, it completely changed my way of thinking. To help, consider this slight rewording:
If you are looking at both Magento and Drupal Commerce, then one of us is in the wrong place.
The obvious implication of this statement is that both Magento and Drupal Commerce have unique roles in the online commerce ecosystem. They are each geared towards certain types of projects and use cases. Instead of pitting each platform against each other to have a winner based on some arbitrary set of features or architecture, a better approach would be to first establish a clear understanding of customer needs. When the needs of a client are properly applied to the strengths of each platform, one will clearly meet those needs in a way that the other does not. Thus removing the need for a feature comparison.
Framing the solutions
What I’d like to endeavor here is (as much as possible) an unbiased and systematic approach to discussing Drupal + Drupal Commerce and Magento as unique solutions to the question of “which commerce platform should I choose?” Keeping the internals aside, here are the particular use-cases that make a lot of sense for a given project. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but if you’re trying to figure out which platform you should be looking at, then take a look. If you find one column aligning with your particular needs—chances are that’s the one that will be a better fit for your business.
|Content strategy||various types of content with rich relationships, taxonomies, and categories||catalog and product content with basic site content or blog|
|Catalog complexity||unrestrained catalog creation and product presentation options||conventional catalog format and product presentation|
|Product offering||non-traditional and mixed-product offerings||traditional physical and/or digital product offerings|
|Platform functionality||open, flexible feature set and custom application foundation||commerce-focused feature set|
|Admin interface||basic yet, customizable admin interface||robust, rigid admin interface|
|User experience||strong, defined vision for bespoke user experience||best practice, industry standard user experience|
|Business strategy||commerce is a part of larger offering or experience||commerce is the strategy|
|Development skill level||basic PHP knowledge required||advanced PHP knowledge required|
Now that we’ve drawn some lines, let’s discuss.
Drupal Commerce (by way of Drupal) has an extremely powerful content system which allows for boundless creation of content types all with their own custom fields and attributes, editing experience, and a set of rich media tools. Content can be related to each other and those relationships can be harnessed to generate lists of related products and blog posts on product pages, or customized landing pages with unique product listings and content. It’s a breeze to set this up and you can do all of this without touching a line of code. If providing content and information to your customers is vital to your business and how you differentiate yourself from others, Drupal is what you want.
Magento, on the other hand, has a very basic content system. You can add pages, add some content to category pages, and adding attributes to products is painless. There are even some great built-in blog modules. But once you step outside of this, you’re in custom territory. You’ll either need two systems (like a blog or a CMS) or you’ll end up building it all custom into Magento increasing cost and ongoing support. Again, it’s not that Magento can’t do content at all, just that Magento’s content features are pretty basic. Enterprise does expand on this, but you still have a very limited tool set and code changes (requiring a developer) are usually required to expand on it.
Magento offers what any reasonable person might consider to be a wholly conventional approach to catalog management. You have a catalog root, and from there you can create tiers of categories. Products fall into one or more of those categories. In fact, it’s pretty common for a product to exist within multiple groups based on how visitors will look for and try to find those particular products. But Magento is also pretty strict that products really can’t be displayed outside of this hierarchy. Aside from some of the product blocks for up-sells and cross-sells, your ability to display products is completely centered around this. Also, product listings are limited to lists and grids views without additional extensions or modifications.
Drupal Commerce releases you from this constraint. Products can be organized, tagged, and dynamically added to or removed from product lists automatically. A traditional catalog-like user experience can be built. But the catalog automatically follows how you already organize your product and can use virtually any attribute that exists on a product. And when you want to display your products, you can choose from a number of pluggable styles from tables, grids, lists, and each product can have it’s own customized look and feel in a product list, too. This can make a huge difference as you try to differentiate, promote, and get your visitors engaged in what you have to offer—no matter how many products you have or how complicated they are.
If you’re selling physical and/or digital products, both platforms are fairly good at that. In fact, Magento again has a lot of features that don’t require individual setup. Want simple and no-fuss sales of traditional products? Magento can tackle that easily. With Drupal Commerce, you start with a basic product structure and are then free to build exactly what you want no matter how complex it might be.
When it comes to non-traditional offerings—event registrations, donations, recurring billing, licensing, and subscription service models—Drupal Commerce provides tools to configure or build what you need without having to reinvent the wheel. And best of all, you can mix any and all of these product types pretty easily. So if you want to do registrations, t-shirt sales, and a recurring monthly donation, you can easily support that in a single site and in a single transaction.
Magento has a well implemented and cohesive commerce feature set. And frankly, if you’re judging a product solely on the published feature set, Magento looks good. That’s not because Drupal Commerce doesn’t have a great feature set—in fact it’s much more expansive than Magento’s—but Drupal Commerce’s flexibility is in the expansive and ever-growing list of modules. It’s hard to quantify. If you’re only looking for a shopping cart and you’re happy with what Magento provides, it may very well be the right choice.
However, if you are wanting to integrate features that go beyond commerce—you want to define and build your own custom application or create a totally unique customer experience—then Drupal Commerce will be a much better platform enabling you to adapt quickly to business and market changes. Entire new areas of functionality can be configured and enabled just like a new feature. Whether you’re adding customer portals, forums, web services, an LMS, or even back office functionality, Drupal can give you the agility and freedom to change and grow as you need to.
While Drupal’s administrative interface can be endlessly customized and tailored to your specific needs (in many cases without even touching the code), it generally tends to be pretty basic. It is trivial to create new screens, targeted to specific users, that gives specific information and actions that can be performed on that information. In short, you can get what you want, but you’ll have to spend the time configuring it.
Magento’s administrative interface is comprehensive and gives users a structured, well-defined way to manage the entire store. If you’re willing to use what’s out of the box, then it will serve you well. The pain will come if you ever decide to deviate from the out of the box experience. Customizations require code modification and even “small changes” could require considerable effort to complete.
When it comes to user experience, Magento delivers a best-practices, industry standard implementation of a traditional shopping cart: you get a catalog, a cart with a one-page checkout, account pages, etc. It’s designed to be a finished product, so you can pretty much trust it will all be there and that it will work well.
Drupal Commerce provides all of that same functionality, but expects you to expend some effort to make it look good. At a minimum, you’ll need to theme it. That’s not much to ask since you’re likely already doing that for the rest of your site. Drupal’s theme system is extremely powerful and adding unique or advanced features can be really easy. In some cases, little to no theme work is required. In addition, the user experience for path to purchase can be more easily integrated with the content experience, giving the merchant far more content marketing and merchandizing avenues.
Drupal is a powerful platform. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it is something that can’t be explained in a single paragraph. Drupal can be a community form, a wiki, an LMS, a translatable content management platform, a web services platform, and an online store. In fact, it could be all of these things at one time. If your vision calls for a platform that can do more than one thing, Drupal can rise to the challenge and integrate several business platforms under a single (software and hardware) roof.
Magento, no surprise here, is a shopping cart. That’s what it does. It does it well, but if you are wanting to integrate Magento with another part of your business (e.g. magazine subscriptions, forum membership, etc.) you’ll have to deal with two independent systems talking with each other. You’ll be synchronizing your data between multiple systems and having to keep everything up to date with custom or 3rd party solutions.
If you’re wondering how easy it’ll be to integrate your team with either Drupal Commerce or Magento, here’s what you need to know.
Magento is a very powerful and complex system. It’s makes heavy use of objects, inheritance, and programming concepts that are confusing to basic and even some moderately experienced PHP developers. Getting acclimated to Magento as a back-end or front-end developer could take weeks or months, depending on the experience level. Also, architecturally, Magento does have some profound gotchas when it comes to adding and developing many extensions on a site. Documentation is so-so but there is a very active community of bloggers, training is available, and Magento support is pretty widely available.
Drupal Commerce is much simpler and even people with minimal to no PHP experience can customize and pick it up within a few days. While parts of Drupal use objects (such as Views and the entity system) much of it is procedural. Drupal is designed to be much more accessible to individuals without coding experience. This flexibility is made available to non-coders through the various modules (such as Views, Rules, features, VBO, etc.) that offer powerful UIs to manage it. However, when code is necessary, bespoke modules can often be very simple. Documentation is generally very good for things like Drupal and Drupal Commerce, while contributed modules can vary from having non-existent to excellent documentation. Again, a very active and friendly community exists to support Drupal developers and users, and a wide range of training and support is available.
When deciding on an open source ecommerce solution, it is important to first look at the fundamentals of your business and identify your priorities. By doing this you will avoid the needless exercise of feature comparisons and checklists and quickly conclude that one of these solutions is simply not a good fit. If content is important to how you engage with customers and sell your product and if you want to control and choose how the solution supports your business needs, Drupal + Drupal Commerce is generally the right choice.
Thanks for the great and informative post!
Your comparsion article
This is a great article. I especially like the point about not looking at the comparison as a comparison of feature sets. I'd like to see how this applies to the overall spectrum of options. Even as simple as what type of key requirements would suggest you need to move to Drupal rather than a more light duty CMS like Word Press.