Open-source software's hidden snags

Tight budgets prompt another look at open source. Users say savings and other benefits are easy to reel in, but there are hitches, too

1 2 3 4 Page 2
Page 2 of 4

Lyman points out that larger enterprises often have the development resources to work with community versions of open-source applications, but even they might find reasons to purchase a license, such as a need for service-level agreements.

Not so for NPC International Inc., which operates more than 1,150 Pizza Hut restaurants worldwide. Five years ago, it used very little open-source software, whereas today it tries diligently to avoid commercially licensed software if there's an alternative, says Jon Brisbin, portal webmaster at NPC. The franchisee started migrating to open source when it converted its point-of-sale system from dBase to PostgreSQL; that deployment has grown to 10,000 installations.

On the other hand, says James Sims, CIO at Save Mart Supermarkets, buying an enterprise license from Ingres Corp. was a financially sound decision. Save Mart uses several open-source applications, including PostgreSQL, Apache Lucene, Red Hat Linux, MySQL and Xymon, and it runs its payroll and time-and-attendance systems on an Ingres- and SUSE Linux-based system. It started out using the public domain version of Ingres but experienced challenges that were related to the software's inability to effectively use a database for a company of Save Mart's size. Sims turned to Ingres for support, which led to a contractual agreement. While the costs are comparable to what he'd pay a commercial database company, "we get incredible support -- more than they should provide," he says.

Similarly, Bassim Hamadeh, founder of custom educational publishing firm University Readers Inc., purchased a license for SugarCRM three years ago, after using the community version for a couple of years. "Our IT manager read about Sugar 2.0, installed it, and within a week, we were using it," he says. At approximately $350 per user per year, he says the price is 20% to 25% that of a system like Salesforce.com, and it enables the company to use additional features such as a robust reporting tool, a workflow system and automated triggers.

Support costs

Another hallmark of open source is the support available in community forums, particularly for the more mature or widely used systems. But choosing to rely on community support instead of signing a service contract can be risky.

"People can Google for 90% of the problems they run into, but the last 10% may be killer if it's a mission-critical system," says Gartner's Driver.

It's important to understand the business impact of a catastrophic failure and have contingency plans in place to remediate the problems, he says. Reducing your risk might mean limiting your use of an application based on its maturity and the level of community support available, or choosing to pay for vendor or third-party support.

"If you have no service-level agreement, contract or warranty, you have shouldered the burden of responsibility," Driver says. "If you're able to do self-support, it's an upside, but if you can't, you have created unforeseen risk."

Of all the open-source software NPC uses, Brisbin opted to pay for support only for SpringSource tc Server, which it uses to deploy Web-based applications in an internal cloud. He went that route because the application server deployment is pushing the envelope of common developer knowledge. "We can't go out to a mailing list of 150 developers and ask questions, because not many people are doing this the way we are," Brisbin says. But he says he's happy that the contract didn't require him to purchase a license, and that it cost just a couple thousand dollars.

1 2 3 4 Page 2
Page 2 of 4
7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon