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Hidden costs of open source software

I had a long discussion with an IT director for a large company this past week, and we talked about his views on open source software. Basically, he said he considered open source for information management software a much greater expense than purchasing or site licensing.

That view was based on several factors:

Information management software has a long usage period. The expectation is the software will be in use for at least a decade as part of the company’s operational procedures.

• Open source software requires integration and customization by the IT staff. Given recent staff reductions, his team did not really have that time to spare.

• First-level and sometimes second-level support would have to be performed by his staff to get the required responsiveness. He said the cost of paying for support from a third party negated the benefits of open-source software, and was difficult to defend when budgets were being scrutinized.

• The IT organization did not want to budget staff time to include open source support. Past experiences had shown this to require much more input than had been forecast.

The bottom line was the economics did not really show benefit after taking all the operational expenses into account. This realization led to a policy of using information management software from established vendors with support and a history of longevity for their products.

He said it was a problem when staff brought open source software into the company. This created issues in the long term. Besides the economic impact, this caused a dependency on a single individual for keeping that application working. This led to establishing a policy where an individual who brought in unapproved software would be terminated immediately.

I told him the concept of open source and not having to pay a usage fee sounded so appealing – especially with so many bright people contributing to it and creating highly valuable software. He agreed with that but said it was still an economics issue and it was also much safer (meaning defensible to executives) to not use it.

(Randy Kerns is Senior Strategist at Evaluator Group, an IT analyst firm).

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