Having the right software in place will enable you to run your business efficiently and help you compete in your market. But is it necessary to invest in proprietary software or are open source alternatives just as good?
In a 2010 study by Zenoss, respondents cited flexibility and cost savings among the most compelling reasons for using open source software (OSS).
Kevin Dontenville, technical director of OpenSure, says: “The key criteria are software that solves a specific business need and has a wide user base and a good, vibrant community.”
OSS is freely distributed, making the source code available to users who can tailor it to their exact needs or even create and distribute their own versions. However, anyone who uses the code must follow the licence terms and transfer them to anyone to whom they pass the software.
There are open source alternatives to most proprietary software commonly used by businesses as well as some interesting specialised tools such as productivity and collaboration applications.
While with proprietary software you need to pay for enough licences to cover all the users in your business, with OSS you can add unlimited users without charge. This means you can easily scale up, or scale down without worrying about having wasted money on redundant licences.
Although users are still bound by a software licence, open source licences generally protect the rights of the user rather than imposing restrictions.
Users also argue that OSS is more reliable and robust than proprietary alternatives. Because other developers can inspect and suggest amends to the code and contribute bug fixes and extensions, OSS gradually evolves to meet the needs of its users better.
Ready-to-use versions of many open source packages are available as downloads or cloud-based systems for free. However for complex applications, like CRM packages, you might have to use a third party for implementation support.
To do a realistic cost comparison, consider the total cost of ownership of the software, any agency services and training you might need, as well as temporary loss of productivity while you learn the ropes.
Alan Lord, co-founder of Libertus Solutions, explains: “There is a learning curve for most people when they start using open source versions of well-known [proprietary] software and some training may be needed initially. But for most businesses the benefits far outweigh the downsides of retraining and reskilling.”
The best source of support for OSS packages is user forums. There’s also a growing range of companies that provide paid-for support.
But what if the originator of the code disappears? Dontenville reassures: “Open source software will not vanish because the source code is open for anyone to continue working with and supporting. When proprietary software companies fail, client businesses are genuinely stuck. With open source the risk is mitigated in the user’s favour.”
Make sure there are plenty of recent postings, then try searching for existing answers to your own questions. If the responses look too technical, consider another option or speak to an expert.
Lord concludes: “Investigate the open source alternatives before you buy commercial software. Don’t be scared ― open source software just tends to do what you want it to and there are lots of people available to help.”
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