Considering The Strength of the Software Community
A strong community of users and service providers can help effectively support any software product and guide its evolution. This is true of vendor-provided software, but it’s a predominantly important consideration for open source software. Because many open source packages are supported and improved solely by a community, the health of that community is crucial to your operations. What should you consider when looking at software communities? And how do those considerations differ for open source and vendor-provided products?
How large is the community? The more the user base the stronger the base, and more likely that the product will be around in the future and continue to improve. Are there companies that specialize in implementing the software? Are there training resources? How about user groups and events based around the product? With open source, it’s also important to look at the number of developers and contributors to the code base. While an extensive community is useful for any product, it’s critical in business scenarios specifically.
How frequent are the updates? Success in software comes from drive and innovation. Products that don’t innovate are quickly crushed by their competitors or, they become vulnerable to the introduction of an open source alternative. Make sure vendors have a strategy and foundation for software releases. This can often mean that because of a wrong decision you have to change your technical direction, in which case might cost you a whole lot more than intended.
How cutting-edge is this community? Not all companies have the most technically innovative ideas. Some projects are directed primarily by one or two well-intentioned individuals. Others are full of cutting-edge technologists challenging each other for mutual technical respect. You always want to go with the community that has intelligent, motivated and innovative plans the same as you would in selecting a company to work for.
What Are The Potencies of Vendor-Provided Software?
There are reasons many organizations pay for vendor-provided software, including:
Ease of Getting Started. Organizations that don’t already have experience with open source projects often find commercial software has a less intimidating road to getting up and running. Lack of I.T. or technical knowledge internally. Vendors often provide sales support and engineering staff trained to make this happen.
Documentation and infrastructure. Well organized and easy to use documentation can be a problem with any software. However, vendor provided software often comes with better documentation because it is someone’s job to write it and keep it up to date for each release or version of the product.
Accountability. As opposed to a piece of electronic equipment or a car, problems and defects are expected in a software product, and discussed openly as a risk of using the product. While you’re generally on your own for any issues with an open source package, commercial vendors typically guarantee against software errors that can impact your organization.
Mature Ease-of-Use. While it varies by product, in general, paying customers and a team of customer-facing sales people often push vendor-provided software into better user interfaces and ease of use. Open source products are often driven by developers instead of business or marketing folks, which can result in user experience and usability being pushed down the list of priorities.
What Are The Strengths of Open Source Software?
Why might you prefer open source software? Let’s explore some of the most common benefits.
You can download the full version of an open source software package and start exploring it, typically without paying a dime. You can set up a prototype or rollout the full system without any fee for use. And, as long as you’re careful with customizations, you can likely upgrade to future versions and get access to new features the community has built for you without cost. Of course, don’t forget that you’ll typically need to invest time or money into installing, configuring and updating the package, but with open source you have more choice over what and when.
Developers often focus on providing a flexible data model, extensible code base designed to give customers the ability to customize and modify for their needs. While vendor provided options generally tie your organization to the vendor’s vision for the product, or even occasionally commit you to terms that make it difficult to use other options, open source products allow you more control over your own destiny should you want to do something different.
Because open source software is developed by a community with shared needs, there tends to be a greater sense of what is really needed and what is not. The best ideas get done, and the worst do not. Typically, communication and collaboration on the community’s Web site, chat groups, events and conferences drive the most pressing issues directly into the hands of the developers solving problems cutting out the middle men in marketing, management, sales, etc.
Critically Assessing Your Own Need
You can likely see benefits and disadvantages to each type of software. There is no single right or wrong answer in these type of scenarios. Instead, you’ll need to decide which strengths and weaknesses matter most for your unique situation.
For instance, if you’ll need to highly customize a package, it’s likely to be more expensive to customize traditional vendor-provided software–if it’s even possible. However, if your organization generally needs lots of training and support, traditional vendor-provided solutions are likely to be a better fit.
Start by building a list of your needs, researching and weighing options on more factors than just cost. Conduct thorough due diligence, compare features and, whenever possible, try out the software. Do not allow the relative accessibility of an open source system to tempt you to start using it without having a solid set of requirements to compare against commercial alternatives. Likewise, you should never pay for software without researching its open source alternatives.
When it comes down to the fine decision making line, open source software and vendor-provided software aren’t so different. It’s critical to look at the features, attributes and costs for each and then weigh the unique benefits each model can bring. By choosing to use an open source system, you are tapping into a community of peers and taking more control of your software destiny, but you are also choosing a course of action that will require a different mindset.
In conclusion, there’s no easy solution in complex technical development scenarios. Open source software isn’t likely to be a free-and-easy cure to all your troubles, but it’s certainly a viable option worth considering.