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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Open Source for Business?

"Open Source" has been the buzzword for the past several years in the computer software industry and has generally been associated with highly technical software such as web and application software and development tools.  Today proprietary software like IBM's WebSphere and Oracle's Weblogic which are incredibly expensive software packages have been displaced by free open source software such as ApacheTomcat, JBOSS, Jetty, and GlassFish.

You may have heard of languages such as PHP or Frameworks like Hibernate, Spring, or Ruby on Rails, again very popular technical offerings.

Have you however seen the hundreds of open source business software such as OpenERP, SugarCRM, and thousands of ERP, CRM, Financial, HR, and special purpose open source packages that are freely available today?

I don't want free, you get what you pay for...

That couldn't be farther from the truth today!  Successful Open Source projects and software are the result of coalitions of companies with needs similar to yours open source is free but funded by contributions from the companies using the software.  You may freely download, install and use most open source software packages with absolutely no cost to you.  You may also have your developers modify and customize the software.

You are encouraged to contribute customizations to the open source organization who maintains the software.  You may also wish to contribute money to help fund ongoing projects that enhance and improve the products.  Note: these projects are customer driven and tend to be exactly on target in meeting current business requirements experienced by many of the companies using the software.

Choose carefully!

There are many remnants of open source projects out on the web that continue to hang on by a thread but are no longer active or viable products.  Here are some steps to help evaluate open source software:

  • Try to determine how many companies use the software and who they are.  Avoid narrow focus limited use products.
  • Look at the blogs and forums that are present on the products web site.  Who is commenting?  Are the comments constructive or negative?  Are problems being resolved?  Are people helping each other use the product?  
  • Look at the "project" list to see what is being worked on.  Check the project start dates, status, and estimated completion.  Are the projects stagnant or active and moving forward?  Who are the people working on the projects?  Are they employees of the underlying organization that sponsors the project or volunteers.  Are projects adequately funded?
  • How good is the documentation?  Is it readily available and written for people or programmers? Is the documentation comprehensive and complete or are major sections missing with notes like "to be written soon..."?
  • Check YouTube and see if their are videos demonstrating or training people in the use of the product.  Popular products have a relatively large number of videos.
  • Do a Google search on the product and look for both positive and negative articles on the product. 
  • Finally, contact some of the people you find on the forums who are using the products and get some personal references and opinions.  
  • Check out the underlying organization that sponsor's the product.  If the organization is a US based 501 C non-profit organization you can get financial reports from the IRS and companies that track non-profits such as GuideStar.  
  • Read the "About Us" links on the web site which usually lists key member companies, board members and their corporate affiliations.  This information will tell you who is sponsoring this initiative and give you a good indication of the depths of its funding.  Sometimes you can find lists of key contributors in this area also.  
Note that many of the companies developing open source software are for profit companies who develop and give away an open source license for their software and sell an "Enterprise Version" with additional features and support that are not available in the free version.  If you are interested in software from this type of company be sure to understand the differences between their free software and their fee based software.  In some cases you get everything except for professional services and support.  In other cases the free software is limited in function with the majority of enhancements and advanced features going into the commercial version. 

The process of selecting open source software is not much different than buying commercial software.  A couple of key issues to look at is who is going to support the software after you acquire it?  Many open source software products have communities of consultants or service providers that make their living supporting open source software.  Many of the development organizations provide support for a fee, and of course you can hire or outsource support.

My personal preference are non-profit organizations organized by user companies with common interests.