Career / Management

Open Source vs Proprietary: Pros and Cons of Closed Source

Open Source vs Proprietary: Pros and Cons of Closed Source picture: A
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Published on September 4, 2019

Many companies are on a quest to find the holy grail of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) to help them cut costs. These projects do exist, but there are many factors to consider. On paper, proprietary to open source migrations seems very simple. However, there are always unforeseen issues along the way.

The main reasons that many people use open source solutions is to do some of their own development on the platform in house. This is something which they can't always do with commercial solutions. This approach has its pros and cons like everything else in IT.

Let's look at what makes this type of move necessary — and what to be thinking about if a move to a FOSS solution is in your future.

Why You'd Go Commercial

Software development houses are good at what they do. They have high standards and quality control, and they understand the Software Development Lifecycle. For those with security on their mind, this is the preferred way to go when developing applications — especially for business.

If your company operates in a niche market, then your choices are even more limited. This generally means that the companies that do have products to offer your business sector are likely going to serve you well. Strong software companies offer solid products that work in specific environments.

Software developers know what their customers want, and they work hard to deliver. This doesn't mean that your dream features will be implemented just because your company has asked for them. However, you might be surprised by how accommodating software companies can be if it means holding onto a valued customer.

Companies that work in software development need to be profitable to survive, so they take their work very seriously. This means that they need to remain competitive with rivals in the software solutions game. Often, this will manifest as strong software updates, quick upgrade cycles, cheaper upgrade options, and improved support. Sometimes these added features are free, sometimes not. Regardless of which is applicable to your situation, competitiveness is a driver for innovation, which is good for the customer.

Why You Might Think Twice about Closed Source

There are drawbacks to commercial software, and the most obvious one is cost. Software is ubiquitous in today's business world, so we don't often think about the cost of keeping up to date. This is especially true for backend technologies that most users will never see, which keep businesses online and functional.

Some organizations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year just to provide their employees with basic productivity applications, email and collaboration software. This is a bitter pill to swallow, especially if you think that major revision changes happen every five to 10 years with the most popular productivity suites.

End users need to be able to work with newer formats of documents as they become standard, so skipping more than a few upgrade cycles is not in the interest of productivity. This means that eventually you will have to cough up the money for an upgrade. Some applications are available as a renewable license, which is more affordable for some businesses. This means a lower perpetual cost every month or every year, depending on your licensing agreement.

Customizability is another area where an off-the-shelf solution might not do it for you, especially if your management team is adamant that a product needs to be able to perform functions that it was not designed to do.

Pros: Professional support, formal agreements, generally better user experience, and SLAs

Cons: Licensing costs can be prohibitive, lack of vendor choices in some industries, low levels of customization

Why You'd Go Open Source

At first, it seems obvious that cutting costs is the first reason why you would look at open source software. Free software is great as it means that your licensing costs are no longer a factor. It also gives you flexibility when upscaling or downscaling because you don't need to purchase additional user licenses or worry about the wasted expense of mothballing usable licenses. If you need to install the software on many computers or servers, you can do that without incurring additional licensing costs.

Customizability is another benefit to using free and open source software (FOSS). You know what your business needs are, and if you are comfortable with programming, then you can make a lot of changes to suit your own needs. If you aren't a programmer, then hiring a developer in house can be cheaper than trying to shoehorn a solution that doesn't quite fit with your company's needs.

Why You Might Think Twice

Keeping skilled developers can be challenging, especially if they are good! Nothing hurts an application more than a revolving door of developers. So, you need to have a solid team that isn't going to leave halfway through a big change implementation. Getting the right contracts in place to ensure continuity can also incur additional costs in the form of labor consultants and legal teams, so the savings that you made initially will start to erode as you navigate the terrain.

Once you are up and running, you also need to take other factors into consideration, especially the most overlooked one: your users. Your custom application might make life a lot easier for management and executives, but how easy is it to use? Does it require specialized in-house training? Are users able to pick it up quite quickly? People need to use these systems, so learning how the open source application works should be just as easy as the commercial system that it is replacing.

Technical support is another area that might also be worth thinking about. If your application is being developed in house, or you are using the publicly available releases, you need support. Your IT department needs to know the product very well if they are going to be installing, maintaining and troubleshooting it. There are times when your support staff are going to need support, and if they can't get the help that they need then you have a problem.

Finding solutions can take a long time, which means that you will end up with messy workarounds and hacks until big problems are solved, and fixes are released by the community and developers.

Sometimes a FOSS project offers enterprise support, but for a price. It might be lower than what your commercial solution was. But if you consider that the commercial product you were using probably included support as part of its licensing agreement, then you might not be saving any money at all.

Pros: Custom features and in-house development, very little to no initial costs acquiring the software

Cons: Finding skilled professionals can be a challenge, project forks can create real problems if lead developers jump ship, and projects can die unexpectedly

Where Does This Leave You?

Now that we have a basic understanding of some of the pros and cons of each approach to implementing a software solution, what are the final things that we should be thinking about? The bottom line is that whatever solution you choose for your company, it must work. Think about the following:

  • Cost savings: Will you save money by going open source?

  • Competitive edge: Will open source software help you to get ahead of the competition?

  • Better efficiencies: Are the new systems better for productivity?

  • Increased stability: Will your uptime benefit from such a change?

If you have ever thought about a free replacement for a commercial product within your company, take a look at the list of 2018's most popular projects on GitHub. There are hundreds of applications with active communities and developers that might have the application you are looking for.

Another excellent resource is SourceForge. There are literally thousands of open source projects that are active on this platform, with direct access to the communities that run and maintain each project. You can find almost any type of open source project here such as: database administration and design tools, point of sale systems, ERP and CRM, or even retro gaming emulators (if you need to take a break and have a little fun.)

Sourceforge is an excellent place to start your search for an open source application to replace an aging or inefficient commercial solution. The chances are high that you will find what you are looking for.

Final Thoughts

Deciding on which type of software solution to use is a fine balancing act that must benefit your company. There are no one-size-fits-all type of solutions in business that will satisfy your every requirement. Most companies need solutions that are tailored for their industry or for their business models.

If you are looking to replace an existing system then it is important to set up a testing environment that will showcase all of its strengths and weaknesses before you can even think about implementation.

So, to sum up the main factors that you need to consider:

  • Licensing costs versus paid for support costs.

  • Specialized staff with knowledge about open source systems versus paid for enterprise support.

  • Functionality versus adaptability. Does your company go with a product that does everything right out of the box, or do you find an open source equivalent with a community of developers? Or do you bring development in house?

This is still a fun exercise even if you aren't looking to replace any systems within your organization. There are some amazing open source projects out there that deserve attention.


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