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Open Source for the Enterprise by Gautam Guliani, Dan Woods

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How Open Source Costs Differ from Commercial Software Costs

On the return side of the equation there is not much difference between open source and commercial software. Revenue is revenue, and if a computer system helps support it, that’s great. It is possible for two different alternatives to meet the goals of creating revenue in different ways, but we can draw no generality about open source always being better to support the creation of revenue. For savings the situation is much the same. Once the estimated savings are determined for each alternative, there is not much to do but compare.

Calculating savings is another black art. It is easiest to do when known costs are eliminated or are replaced with a new set of lower costs. But an honest analysis of savings would have to quantify savings due to differences in reliability, downtime, maintenance procedures, and so on. Many of these issues are hard to quantify in a defensible manner.

The nature of the costs of open source and commercial software is truly different, however.

Evaluation Costs

The costs of evaluating open source can be considered part of the ROI analysis, so it might not be included in the ROI equation, but it does take time, more time generally than for commercial software. At some level it should be included in management’s thinking about the costs and benefits of using open source.

During the sales process for commercial software, vendors are eager to educate potential buyers about why their software is valuable. To buy software, an IT department must be convinced that:

  • Their organization has a need for some software in a certain space.

  • The vendor’s offering is the best choice.

  • Right now is the time to buy the product.

Vendors spend a lot of money on whitepapers, marketing materials, conferences, and other content to communicate all three of these points. Many IT executives use vendor materials heavily to “get smart” about a space.

For open source, few such materials exist. Open source projects rarely come with whitepapers explaining why you need the software. Open source communities just assume that you need it; that’s why you are visiting the site. The product description of open source materials often happens at a relatively detailed level. (“This is a content management system. Here is the API documentation. See the code samples for further clarification.”) And open source projects really don’t care if you have a need now, or sometime in the future.

So, to really understand what an open source project can do, an IT department must install it and play with it, and this takes time and different sorts of resources. A typical commercial software evaluation might take place with the sales staff or with IT managers who screen the products, bringing in the architects or developers later only if the product looks promising. For an open source evaluation, the developers and architects should probably take the lead. An architect or developer’s time might be worth more in some organizations than a manager’s time. This must be planned for. The amount of time it takes to install a product is based on the IT organization’s skills. Expert and advanced users can install and get most open source software operating in two or three hours. A user at a strong, intermediate skill level should be able to have most open source software running within a day.

In addition to the cost of creating a trial installation, the IT staff must learn enough about the software to play around with it and understand its functionality to determine if it can meet the company’s requirements. While this is another activity that consumes technical resources, it also removes a significant amount of risk from the process. By using an open source product to create prototypes, the IT staff can compare the actual functionality with the requirements, and can validate the requirements by having users interact with the prototypes.

Arranging a similar installation of commercial software might require any or all of the following:

  • Negotiation of a trial license that might have a time limit

  • Payment of service fees to support the trial installation

  • Training

  • Trial licenses for additional related software

Vendors might or might not be open to a trial installation. After all, the investment in all the educational and marketing materials is supposed to make the value and functionality of the software clear.

In the end, the evaluation of open source can involve more technical resources than an IT department is accustomed to, but can also result in a deeper understanding of both the software and the requirements. With commercial software, management might take the leading role, and with open source the technologist might be the primary analyst. In either case, care must be taken to ensure that one side doesn’t dominate the evaluation and create a disconnect between the business and technology requirements.

License and Maintenance Costs

An extremely naïve view of open source, one frequently promoted by technologists who are eager to use open source, focuses solely on the fact that there are no license or maintenance fees to pay. License and maintenance fees for commercial products can range from as low as a few percentage points to as much as 20 points or more of the total solution. But the savings in license fees is no guarantee that open source is the right choice.

First of all—and this might come as a shock—some open source does come with what amounts to licensing fees. Companies are frequently happy to pay subscription fees for Linux distributions from Red Hat or SuSE to get a coherent collection of software, packaged consistently, with a nice installation program and a steady stream of updates. Other projects such as JBoss charge licensing fees for documentation, and Resin actually requires licensing fees for commercial use, even though it seems like open source. Open source is no guarantee of zero licensing costs.

While there is no maintenance fee for open source—upgrades are free—you often have to spend more time with an open source project to figure out what is in the upgrade. Perhaps the best news is that upgrades are never forced on you, the way they so often are with commercial software. An IT department can move from one version to the next whenever the time is right for the company, not when the vendor can no longer afford to support maintenance of older versions.

Increasingly, however, it is possible to find traditional support and maintenance for open source software. Several start-ups offer support for various open source projects and useful combinations of projects. One of the reasons companies like using commercial software is that it means an organization exists that can be held accountable for the software. The new wave of start-ups is responding to this need and is providing “one throat to choke” in exchange for a fee.

Installation and Configuration Costs

Installation and configuration of open source can be time consuming, especially for beginner or intermediate organizations that are not deeply skilled in the use of open source tools. To install an open source program and then get it running can require a fair bit of fiddling, especially with more immature products that have not been used much outside their native environment. Commercial software generally comes with some sort of install wizard that guides the user through installation and basic configuration. While more and more open source projects are showing this degree of professionalism, the use of such wizards is still not widespread.

Configuring the software, the process of changing all the settings so that the software behaves as desired, can also take longer for open source, as the mechanisms of configuration are discovered more through trial and error or reading code rather than through some comprehensive documentation. At a fine-grained level, especially for large programs, configuring a commercial software program can be a black art as well. Undocumented settings are routine in the commercial world and frequently are discovered by IT departments only after lengthy support calls or expensive engagements for services.

The real factor in determining whether installation and configuration will require a significant time commitment is an organization’s skill level in using open source development tools, system administration, and operations. In general, beginners and those at the intermediate skill level will spend more time on installation and configuration than will more highly skilled IT departments.

Integration and Customization Costs

Careful assessment of integration and customization costs in many ways is the key to avoiding an open source nightmare. Unlike commercial products, open source projects are not usually created with the modern IT infrastructure environment in mind. Integration with single sign-on or support for monitoring protocols such as SNMP might not exist. Support for databases might be narrow and limited to a few choices or to one database. Support for standards might be lacking.

Most of the time, the same problems exist in emerging commercial software that is early in its life cycle. But as the commercial program is installed in more and more IT environments, smart vendors seek to productize the most common integrations so that the same work is not required again with each new client.

Some companies have unique integration problems that will always have to be solved through custom coding, regardless of whether open source or commercial software is used. The question is how easy that integration will be to create. And that can be determined only on a case-by-case basis. It is possible to argue that open source integration can be less expensive, because access to source code means you can always do the work yourself.

The need for customization arises when the open source project must be extended to meet the requirements at hand. Here, open source becomes a gray area between a buy versus build decision. Open source represents the decision not to buy, but to build as little as possible. And don’t forget: the skills to customize an open source product must be created inside an organization or be obtained through consulting services.

With an open source program it is far more likely that an IT department will have to solve an integration or customization problem on its own. Then the question once again boils down to having the needed skills or renting them. If a web content management system, for example, doesn’t support a single sign-on mechanism, someone will have to write the code to add that support.

Once such code is written, it can be either donated to the community and maintained as part of the project’s source code, or kept as a proprietary modification that must be maintained and updated with each new release. In general, beginner and intermediate-level users require some sort of consulting help in creating such integrations, and advanced and expert users can do it on their own if they choose.

It’s hard to generalize about whether this is a strength or a weakness of open source. It is clearly a weakness to the extent that more integration work is probably needed for the average open source project than for the average commercial project, which might have productized some of the integration. On the other hand, the answer is never “no” when it comes to integrating open source. Almost everyone who has used commercial software to support a business has come across a need that requires changing the software in a special way to optimize support. Perhaps a company has a custom-built operational monitoring system or a clever use of a data warehouse or the desire to integrate tightly with a desktop application. Commercial vendors frequently won’t make such modifications for an IT department, and they won’t provide the source so that an IT department can do it for themselves. Anything can be done with open source, so the barrier to creating the optimal system for supporting a business process is often lower. The higher the skill level, the lower the bar will be.

Operations and Support Costs

On the surface, operations and support costs do not look that different between open source and commercial software. Once software is installed, configured, and integrated, it is just software, whether it is open source or not. Skill levels play a large role in determining the time required to support both commercial and open source software. But when it comes to configuring a professional environment, open source leaps way ahead.

Commercial software vendors might require licensing fees for any of the following situations:

  • Creating a development environment on each developer’s workstation

  • Creating a test environment or a staging environment

  • Adding servers for scalability

  • Adding servers for disaster recovery or for a hot backup site

For a vendor, all of this makes perfect sense. The more an IT department uses a product, the more value it gets from that product and the more it should pay for the product. But as a practical matter these ancillary licensing fees increase the cost and get in the way of optimizing the performance and stability of an environment. It can be a nasty surprise to find out that an expensive license stands in the way of scaling an application or creating the right disaster recovery site.

The Cost of Narrowness

Looking back on the difference between the costs of open source and commercial software, a theme emerges. In open source, the burden is on the IT department to develop or find the skills to evaluate, install, configure, operate, and support the software. If this burden is accepted, anything is possible.

For commercial software, these burdens can take less time and cost more money, but the range of possibilities is narrower and is confined to the common needs of the marketplace the vendor should support. The cost of this narrowness is the defining issue. How can you measure the cost of commercial software’s narrowness and rigidity? If you never run into a barrier, the cost is zero. If you have a great need for a certain feature, it can be huge.

The same question must be asked of the functionality of the open source project. If there is a large gap between the needs of an IT department and the use cases that are the focus of the open source project, that gap might need to be filled. Doing so might require a significant time investment and a certain level of skill.

If you have a clear understanding of how a piece of software is going to be used, and you are confident that it is stable and unlikely to change or need optimization, perhaps the bias should be in favor of commercial software. On the other hand, if you need software that is optimized and tuned to meet perfectly the needs of a crucial business process, perhaps open source is the right choice. We will return to this analysis in detail in Chapter 5.

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