Should Your Company Jump into Open Source?

March 28, 2006

Should Your Company Jump into Open Source?

by Rikki Kirzner, Partner and Carol Baroudi, Partner

Are you ready to acquire open source solutions for your organization? You might want to carefully consider the motivating factors and consequences of your decision before making the leap. Because very efficient, even elegant, open source equivalents to almost every popular application exist today, many enterprises have embraced open source as a satisfactory alternative or improvement over similar commercial products.  Examples of these include the Firefox open source browser with its intuitive interface and ability to block pop-ups, the ubiquitous Linux operating systems and the Eclipse development platform.

Proponents of open source often cite lower cost as the main reason for choosing open source.  To refute these claims vendors with established commercial applications have recently published results of surveys they commissioned indicating how their products deliver better total cost of ownership (TCO).  Open source vendors lashed back with their own surveys refuting these claims.   As the TCO debate between open source and commercial software rages on, Hurwitz & Associates believes cost is only one of many important considerations in choosing software.

Another major attraction of open source is the ability to avoid proprietary lock-in by any single vendor.  Since companies are not burdened by the constraints of licensing or maintenance regulations, they can decide when they want to upgrade versions.  The collaborative, open source community process relies on consensus decision to determine what features are added, what changes are made to the code and the priority of bug fixes.  Those who disagree are free to make their own changes to their code.
Hurwitz & Associates suggest you carefully consider the following five criteria:

1) Determine whether or not the open source product will give your employees and your customers the equivalent functionality you are actually using (or plan to use) in the commercial applications that you currently license. Many commercial applications are more feature-rich than their open source equivalents but whether those rich features are important to your business only you can decide. For example, Star Office is not as feature rich as Microsoft Office, but you may not care.

Feature richness can be a result of product maturity.  Development on commercial solutions does not wait for open source look-alikes to catch up but open source can leap frog existing products.  Microsoft, for instance, hopes to introduce a better browser than Firefox in its next major release of Windows (Longhorn), whenever that eventually happens, but will it be better than the next version of Firefox?

2) Understand how easy or difficult it will be to integrate the open source solution into your existing environment.  Not all open source products fit easily fit into all environments and you must determine integration and hardware upgrade costs if they apply. 

3) Thoroughly investigate the open source product you are considering. Not all open source products have the same pedigree. Make sure you have adequate support for the product you select. While the open source community supports open source products, not all open source products have adequate support. The Eclipse foundation is one example of open source done very well. When open source products come from young or small companies, assess the risks associated with adopting products that haven?t been thoroughly tested in a large market or are at risk of disappearing should the company go out of business or get acquired. 

4) Determine your own TOC. Open source may or may not drive operational costs lower. Include the price of the technology, the cost of upgrades, maintenance, training, technical support, and the cost of integration with existing solutions. Carefully evaluate the costs associated with migrating your application or company to open source. Consider other methods that could also lower your operational costs, such as tools that can improve the build process and speed up time to market.

5) Determine the role the open source product will play in your organization and your readiness to participate in the open source community. If you are content to use open source as others deliver it this won?t be a big issue. But if you decide that the open source product is something integral to your own product strategy or operations, be prepared to participate in and contribute to the open source community that supports this product.

Open source may offer clear advantages to your business. Many open source products are as good as or better than commercial versions and the virtues of open source are driving global demand. Hurwitz & Associates encourages you to explore and evaluate open source solutions. Our one caveat: look at open source with open eyes.



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