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

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Applying governance

Organizations serious about using open source are also advised to establish policies and governance practices to monitor and control its use. Driver estimates that only 20% of organizations using open source have such policies in place, and in the Computerworld survey, most respondents said they didn't measure ROI. Taking such a risk can lead to unforeseen costs; for instance, even if you think you're reaping benefits, with no benchmarking or cost comparison, that could be an illusion, he says.

"People can be getting a negative ROI and firmly believe it's positive because they've gone from a [capital] expense to an [operating] expense," he says. In other words, the savings on license fees could be outdone by the salaries of employees who must spend eight to 10 hours a week updating, testing and patching the software.

In some cases, companies are realizing savings but can't prove it. "The key to minimizing the potential downside and maximizing the upside is governance," Driver says. "Without that, you're shooting in the dark."

At the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, Chan is creating a direct comparison between the cost and performance of the new IT environment and the older one. He cautions that it requires an investment of resources to run tests and create meaningful benchmarks.

And even if you're only planning to use the software internally, it's important to ensure that the legal department understands the numerous types of licenses available, Driver says. "Restrictions vary, sometimes dramatically," he says. "You don't want to get a letter from your lawyer with an injunction because your open-source solution violated someone else's intellectual property."

Fitting open-source technology into your current infrastructure is another thorny issue. Three years ago, Roy Mentkow, director of technology for the city of Roanoke, Va., decided to transition from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice. However, for some users, desktop applications were heavily integrated with Lotus Notes workflows. "We had to ensure OpenOffice worked well with Notes on an application-by-application basis," Mentkow says. "That was something that snuck up on us."

In the end, the city migrated about half of its 900 users, resulting in $140,000 in savings. Still, Mentkow says, the savings won't come all at once but rather when those desktops would have been upgraded to a new version of Microsoft Office.

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