Open Source Software & Vendor Provided Licensed Software… Which One Is The Best Choice For Your Business? (Part-1…)
Imagine you are in an expansion process, and your budget is tight, the deadline is looming and the options are extensive. You know that the sales representatives for any number of commercial vendors would be willing to get you set up quickly. You have also heard that open source applications can provide a solution cheaply or for free. But can you afford the time it will take to get to know the open source options? Can you afford the cost of licenses?
Open source software applications are becoming an increasingly viable alternative to vendor provided commercial software. We will discuss the differences between these types of software, and the pros and cons of each alternative.
Regardless, you have to decide how to compare open source applications to vendors’ commercial offerings. Let’s start from the beginning and get a sense of the important considerations.
Considering Vendor-Provided Software
When it comes down to vendor provided software, we’re all familiar with the concept. It’s hard to oversimplify these packages as they fit into a huge range of categories.
The software might be a one size fits all package that you can easily install on a desktop, like Microsoft Word, or a powerful, configurable system that takes time and care to roll out across an organization, like Spice Works’ Network Performance Monitor. You might rent the system by the month and use it over the Internet in a Software as a service Model, like Web Help Desk. It might be highly configurable to your needs, like Front Range Goldmine. It might cost nothing to use, like Google Apps, or cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. In any case, if you are interested enough and have the time and the means to obtain these systems, a consultants and implementers that can help you get up and running.
The common tie among all these software packages is that they’re distributed by a vendor organization. You contact the vendor for the right to use the software package, which often requires a license fee. Vendors have staff members charged with distributing the software, and who can often help you understand what the software does, support you in using it and even partner with you strategically.
Considering Open Source Software
On the contrary, open source software is typically developed, marketed and distributed by a team of developers or donation based development community or individuals. The term “open source” means that the source code itself, the instructions that cause the application to do what it does, can be easily viewed, modified or downloaded by anyone with technical expertise.
Open source software is sometimes called Free software because you are free to run these software packages for any purpose, and you generally don’t pay anything to acquire them. Second, the source code is free, so you can see the code and understand how it works. Third, you are free to copy and redistribute the package to anyone you want. Finally, you are free to modify the software however you like, and to release those modifications.
Community is the key concept to understand how open source software is created. There is usually a common denominator when it comes down to open source software. Shared goals and interest, community rules and practices and the ability to execute as a team and create software. Which ultimately makes the software free.
It can be a challenge for institutions not accustomed to the concept to accept open source as a viable approach for developing quality software. But those perceptions are changing. Businesses and non-profits of all sizes from the Fortune 1000 to the federal government have adopted open source software packages for many different purposes. For instance, the Linux operating system and Apache Web servers power much of the Internet. The Firefox Web browser is gaining substantial market share. Content management systems like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal and Plone are widely used by nonprofits, while Constituent Relationship Management systems like SugarCRM and CiviCRM are increasingly viable options. An open source model can result in
How Are Vendor-Provided and Open Source Options Similar?
One key aspect to keep in mind is that even software that is free to acquire has a long-term cost to implement and maintain it. In the industry it is called the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). Regardless of what type of software you consider, make sure you weigh the following options:
First try to understand your organization’s need, before making any decisions about software which may be open source or licensed.
Hardware Costs. What hardware will you need to purchase and support to effectively run the software?
mplementation Complexity. Think through the amount of work it will take to get the software package up and running and customized as needed. Software might be free, but the development will certainly cost you. Always have this in mind when making decisions. Having said that, software applications always work best when customized least. This is as true for open source as for commercial software as well.
Training and Support Expenses. Packages that are more difficult for your end users to learn will cost more money in the long run, as you’ll need to provide more training and more support down the road.
Module/Extensions availability. Smart vendors and open source communities alike provide open and accessible ways to tap into the product and its data, and when appropriate, to extend it. If you don’t see these options, ask yourself why. Will your options to extend functionality be hindered by the lack of a clearly defined extensions or modular architecture? Or worse, will your data be locked into a proprietary structure, or isolated? Ways to access data should be non-negotiable to organizations that don’t want to get stuck down the road.
In our next article we will talk more about how to compare vendors, their strengths and weaknesses and their software capabilities for the best business outcome. But in the meantime, having a clear understanding of what’s needed for your organizational growth, is the key to having a precise start on the vendor qualification process.