Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Does Open Source Save You Money?

I ran across an interesting question a while back on LinkedIn.  The author addresses the age old... well... at least ten year old question... does using open source software save you money?  Granted, the question is not phrased as such.  "Are enough IT departments exploring open source as a potential way to reduce costs," is the way he put it.  Reading further into the question,  I find it interesting that the person believes that using open source software saves a company money is a foregone conclusion.  It is also interesting to note the tactic of reminding everyone that times are tough.

First off, let me just say that there are definitely times to use freeware.  From what I have seen, the best places to use freeware are where the fewest people need to change how they do their jobs.  You probably can save money on your IT budget by going with a mail service provider  based on freeware instead of exchange.  As long as it all ties into your other infrastructure who cares.  You're buying the service in this case, not the software.  As long as those services solve your problems to the same extent, go with the cheaper one.  Or, if you are introducing a new system of a type few of your employees have used before.  Again, if the features solve your business problems better than other solutions, learning curve is really not an issue in this case.

However, there are many myths about open source software.  It is more than arguable that using open source software does not necessarily save you money in the long run. For that matter open source software does not necessarily save you money on licensing costs.  Fine, I'm picking nits on this one, but open source does not mean the software costs no money to obtain.  Open source means that the source code is readable and distributed with the software.  You may do what ever you want with the source code within the limits of the license under which you obtained it.  Open source products can cost money.  

Fine, that's not what many people mean when they say open source.  I understand that a good number of open source applications can be obtained free of charge under licenses such as the GNU GPL and the GNU LGPL to name a couple.  In these cases, the software really does cost less to obtain.  Today, at face value, off the shelf, without any bulk discounts, the most expensive version of Microsoft Office costs $680 per license.  Ouch.  That alone would scare many people into feeling like they should start looking for a zero dollar solution.  

So they download some freeware, spend some time installing it and turn it loose on their employees.  Depending on the size of your company, creating new images and installing the software on existing computers will start costing you the money you would have spent on licenses.  How many hours will it take for the workers to get up to speed?  How much do those employees make per hour?  Even after they learn the new software over a few days (at best), people will still lose time every day for quite a while until they grok the ins and outs of the new software the same as the old.  Not only that, but the long-term, small frustrations will add up even if only subconsciously and can affect overall productivity. 

What do you do when software breaks?  If your paid license includes some level of support, and most do, you can just call the experts at the company that wrote your software.   If not, well...  Sure, there are people that support open source solutions.  Those services are not free.  Hard to believe, I know.  And such services really do exist and some are really good at what they do, they are just not as abundant or it can be hard separating the wheat from the chaff.  This means you spend more time finding and evaluating them.  If you are afraid of losing them because they were so hard to find, you may also end up paying them more.  And that cost is usually an ongoing fee or salary instead of the one time cost of a license.

Why aren't there that many people out there to support your open source package?  Part of it is just inertia.  Not as many people know it, so not as many people use it, so not as many people learn it, etc., etc.  Maybe the world will get past this someday, but it is powerful.  Another reason though is that open source projects are notoriously prone to forking.  People can only specialize in so many pieces of software.

Let's take a look at that forking issue from another angle.  How sure are you that the next versions of all of your open source applications, the ones that finally have those much needed features, are going to work with the next version of your operating system when there are so many application-OS permutations that need to be tested?  I still don't entirely trust that any of my software will work on any given future version of the Apple operating system and only one company was ever working on each of those.  I'll stick with the relatively few companies whose software will most likely work on the next operating system they put out until they let me down, thanks.

When it comes down to it, open source products really only have one guaranteed strategic business advantage over proprietary software.  If they don't work for you, you can make them work.  You have all of the code and you can make them do whatever you want so they will play nice with all of your other software.  If your business needs this sort of flexibility and has the resources (notice the concept of total cost rearing its head again) open source is the way to go.

In general, I think it is important to be honest about all of the costs and pain points you are addressing when considering a software package.  If open source really addresses the most issues, by all means, use it and be happy with it.  But if you are just trying to get some freeware to save money up front, remember that all those other little pains that you leave unsolved for your company and your individual employees add up a lot faster than the price of software.

No comments:

Post a Comment