BrainTrust Query: Is Open Source Worth It?
By Bill Bittner, President, BWH Consulting
I’ve been working on an Open Source based software project. It’s really caused me to think through the whole process that brings a company to decide on an Open Source solution vs. buying a commercially developed (and supported) software product.
My first exposure to Open Source software was about eleven years ago when my AIX systems administrator introduced us to SAMBA. SAMBA provided us a direct interface to the Windows file systems on our (wrong choice here) token ring network. It enabled us to transfer data between the AIX operating system used on our In-Store Processors to our Windows based PC environment for version control and storage “seamlessly”. There were commercial solutions, but my system administrator was adamant and the cost was literally “free”. This first experience was relatively painless and SAMBA provided all the capability we needed.
The general public has now become aware of Open Source as discussions of Linux, Firefox and other independently developed software solutions have reached the general press. But the pattern these solutions have followed is that the “core” becomes the “queen bee”. The core software sits at the center of commercially developed extensions and support services that meet various user requirements. Thus Red Hat is a commercial software vendor that has developed extensions and supports Linux, an Open Source platform.
It is very difficult to find a “totally free” Open Source solution. Either you’re going to buy extensions to the solution or use your own staff to take off the rough edges. If nothing else, someone on your staff is going to take the time to research and educate themselves on the alternatives that exist.
The core solution is like buying a furniture kit that needs to have the pieces assembled and the surfaces finished in order to create a product. If you have the carpenters and woodworkers on staff to complete the project, you may be able to support an Open Source solution internally. Otherwise, you might hire someone (did I hear “consultant”?) who has done the assembly before and can get you past the initial installation. The challenge becomes finding the ongoing support. If it’s like a piece of furniture and the functions are clearly understood and not much adaptation is involved, then ongoing support should not be much of an issue. If it’s like an electronic device that connects with many parts of the business, like a purchasing application, then it needs to accommodate change as requirements and connections evolve. This makes support and user training critical factors.
Discussion Questions: What’s the best long-term strategy? Open Source, with its low up-front costs but inherent lack of support, or commercially developed, fully supported solutions? Can you think of situations where one is better suited than the other?
[Author’s comment:] Of course, it depends on the situation and the available solutions. If it is a narrow-scope, technically well-defined environment like the SAMBA example, Open Source can make a lot of sense. It does not involve significant user training and the ongoing support issues will likely be addressed by the technical community. When it comes to application software, the answer may be completely different. Now you are dealing with solutions that have a lot of options and require significant user training and support. It may be better to have vendor support and use their experience for training and implementation to help with the inevitable resistance to change associated with a new application.
Often, companies end up buying a commercial solution and then customizing it so much that they can’t take further updates and the vendor can no longer support it. In that case, they may have been better off with the Open Source solution all along.
We’ve come a long way from the “no one in IT ever got fired for recommending IBM” mentality but I think there are more opportunities for considering Open Source in business solutions.