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Analysis: The big problems with open source

We look at the cons rather than the benefits

Tight budgets prompt another look at open source. Users say savings and other benefits are easy to reel in, but there are problems, too. We take a look at just what you need to consider with open source.

Support costs

Another hallmark of open source is the support available in community forums, particularly for the more mature or widely used systems.

But choosing to rely on community support instead of signing a service contract can be risky.

"People can Google for 90 percent of the problems they run into, but the last 10 percent may be killer if it's a mission-critical system," says Gartner's Driver.

It's important to understand the business impact of a catastrophic failure and have contingency plans in place to remediate the problems, he says.

Reducing your risk might mean limiting your use of an application based on its maturity and the level of community support available, or choosing to pay for vendor or third-party support.

"If you have no service-level agreement, contract or warranty, you have shouldered the burden of responsibility," Driver says.

"If you're able to do self-support, it's an upside, but if you can't, you have created unforeseen risk."

Of all the open-source software NPC uses, Brisbin opted to pay for support only for SpringSource tc Server, which it uses to deploy web-based applications in an internal cloud.

He went down that route because the application server deployment is pushing the envelope of common developer knowledge.

"We can't go out to a mailing list of 150 developers and ask questions, because not many people are doing this the way we are," Brisbin says.

But he says he's happy that the contract didn't require him to purchase a license, and that it cost just a couple thousand dollars.

Applying governance

Organisations 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 percent of organisations 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 licence 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 realising savings but can't prove it.

"The key to minimising the potential downside and maximizing the upside is governance," Driver says.

"Without that, you're shooting in the dark."

NEXT PAGE: The need for investment

  1. We look at the cons rather than the benefits
  2. Not always open
  3. Support costs
  4. The need for investment
  5. Adaptable open source


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