Hidden Costs Of Open Source Software

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There is a new global trend in IT management to adopt open source platforms and applications. I’m not only talking about Linux operating systems or Firefox browsers, but about platform applications to build websites and content management systems. Today, there are really good open source alternatives for various commercial solutions.

Anyone using open source platforms knows that there are several key motivators to using them. One of the reasons is ideological – open source software  is available under the GPL that allows us to make copies, modify and distribute the software, support collaborative development, and upgrade as needed. Another motivator is cost….there isn’t any! It will cost you zilch to use the software, and where I come from FREE is usually a good thing.

Although open source is free and easy to obtain, and despite its growing popularity, there are still some stumbling blocks below the surface that can affect your business.

When an organization decides to integrate a new system, it needs to consider the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership). TCO reflects a measurement of all the costs of identifying and acquiring software, installing it, operating it and the exit costs found in migrating away from the software. It also reflects, not just the balance of the direct qualities of competing software products (price, functionality, reliability etc.), but also the relationship of the software to the organization’s broader set of technology platforms, installed systems, culture, skill base, and strategic goals, as well as the ability to access market and community based services and support.

TCO drivers fall within 5 broad software life cycle stages –

Selection, Acquisition, Integration, Use and Retirement. Obviously the cost of software itself is the most significant factor and the easiest to estimate, with cost of maintenance and upgrades coming second and cost of contracted support, third. Factors that are less easy to asses are in the domain of organizational change and exit costs as well as in the establishment of appropriate in-house services.

Therefore, we should take into account that free doesn’t always mean that there are not capital expenditures. At the very least, hardware must be acquired to run the software and that costs money. Also, there is a cost in training staff to support the new application. When all is said and done, one needs to compare how much money the open source solution actually saved compared to the total sum.

Below, I’ve outlined some of the factors I’ve had to consider when it comes to using open source software:

  • Integration – Open source platforms are usually very comprehensive and designed to be integrated and used by highly skilled professionals. Any customization requirement which is not basic requires advanced knowledge. That can make the integration process of open source products expensive as well. Commercial products are usually designed for specific use and to work out of the box (I’m not talking here about ERP systems of course).
  • Maintenance – When we purchase commercial products, there are vendors on the other end who have a clear interest in our satisfaction with the product, and therefore provide consistent support as needed (or, as paid for J). When we use open source solutions, we depend on the open source community and cannot push them to fix issues which bother us, though theoretically we can do it ourselves…
  • Support – When we use commercial products, we have a clear point of contact on any issue we face with the product. When we use open source, we need to be very patient and look for answers in the documentation, online forums and blogs.
  • Information security – There are various approaches to this topic with both pros and cons when compared to commercial products. However, we need to remember that in the case of open source, we carry all of the responsibility whether the application security is better or worse.

I’m a huge fan of open source, but as we can see – free doesn’t always mean cheap! There are various considerations that must be taken into account when assessing the benefit of open source to your company.

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