Ask any IT manager these days what he or she considers when investing in new software. Whether the product is open source may not feature highly on the list. What he or she cares about are features, prices, support and warranty.
The reduced cost and customisability associated with open-source software may increasingly appeal to customers.
Freedom from licensing means companies using open source can stretch their existing infrastructure further, without having to pay for upgrades. However, this isn't a magic solution, and it's important to consider the long term needs of customers before recommending an open source product straight off the bat.
To any underfunded IT department the promise of unlimited usage without support costs might seem a no-brainer. But you might be able to give your customers a better deal with proprietary than open source, and keep them buying from you in the future.
Proprietary software has one major advantage over its open source rivals: transparency in its pricing. It might cost more up front, but if money is tight, that's often better than the alternative -- where an unknown amount of money may be needed to bring something up to spec.
While many open source products might be cheaper initially, this might only be for a bare-bones version of the software, with more investment required in an expensive version that will perform all the functions you might require.
Why not sell products that have all the options available straight away, so there's no need for extra hours spent customising their new acquisition? It might cost more, but customers who have paid less for less may well feel short-changed, no matter how little they paid for their product in the first place.
This leads to the problem of support, which many large companies have cited as a main concern with open source.
Depending on the skill of the developers, some open source projects might have the same amount of polish and user-friendliness as proprietary versions, but some may be less well designed and require extensive setting up and modification before they will work on the customer's system.
Open source projects are often community-led, which cuts development costs down to a minimum but the quality and availability of any follow-up support depends entirely on the continued participation of the community that built it.
That support may only exist for as long as the community is willing to provide it, and may have to be outsourced at an inflated cost if their IT departments can't manage it.
Any software requires fixes and updates to keep up with the latest developments in technology, whether that is making it compatible with a new operating system or a new web browser.
Commercially produced software has an agreed schedule for updates and, while it remains supported, these updates will continue to be available.
If a project is community driven, updates will only continue as long as the community has the time and the will to produce them. If key developers move on, there is no guarantee there will be anybody to replace them.
This leads to my next point: if regular updates are being made, there's no guarantee the product will keep moving in a direction your customer wants. If there is a change in direction or a change in personnel at the developer's end, updates could end up changing or removing key features they want to use.
A business should move with its customers, but an open source product is under no financial pressure to do the same.
It's true that off-the-shelf software might not be able to compete with the initially low price of an open source product, the customer could end up shouldering much less risk if they buy commercial rather than open source.
The overriding concern in the end is performance. A guaranteed support network can provide enormous added value behind your service, outweighing the apparent advantage of a low price.
A large company with a large IT department may well be able to use open source software to its full potential, and save money as a result. A small company without the resources to support its own use of the software might find itself sending good money after bad, and won't want to remain your customer.
Christine Lindner is UK business development manager at Paessler
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