Open source software's hidden snags

Users say savings and other benefits are easy to reel in, but there are hitches

When CIO Daniel Chan was first prompted to use open-source software, cost savings weren't top of mind. He was mainly interested in how open source would enable his IT group at the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance to put ideas into action more quickly. In his government office, the procurement process lasts anywhere from 12 to 18 months. "It makes it impossible to do anything creative," Chan says.

With open source software, it took just a few months for Chan's team to get the tools it needed to build a new self-service benefits system -- just in time for the flurry of activity that occurred during te economic freefall. Even though the agency purchased a support contract for the technology, there were no licensing terms and conditions to negotiate, which cut way back on the involvement of the procurement and legal offices.

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And the benefits kept coming. As use of the system escalated, Chan's team not only kept up with the increasing volume, but also was able to help transfer the technology to three other states in a month's time, since there was no commercial license involved. "We were able to get people to come in and help quickly because there was a large pool of developers to draw from," Chan says.

With that success, Chan is now looking at migrating from the agency's current Unix platform to Linux -- and this time, cost savings are at the fore. "We'll easily see three to five times in savings by moving to open systems," he says. "Instead of $5 million to do a technology refresh, it will be $1 million or less."

In fact, in an exclusive Computerworld survey of 143 IT professionals, 80 percent of the respondents cited cost savings as the No. 1 benefit of open-source software, and 61 percent said open source has become more accepted in enterprises over the past few years. Open-source software "has transformed over the last decade from this unknown, risky thing that hippies and garage developers do, to the basis for a market in the billions of dollars," says Jay Lyman, an analyst at The 451 Group. "It's come of age, and it's just assumed to deliver cost savings."

But the close association of open source and cost savings can lead users to overlook other benefits of open source -- and the challenges that might come with it, including the need to manage cultural change, risk and expectations.

"There's a lot to live up to," Lyman says. "If people discover that it costs more than they thought, you do hear horror stories." What's more, the decision to use open source has -- until recently -- been more low-level than strategic, according to Forrester Research. So while there's executive awareness of the cost advantages, other benefits, potential risks and structural changes required to take full advantage of open source are less well understood.

Not always 'open'

One of the reasons why costs can be higher than expected is because companies often opt to purchase a license for the software rather than using the free-of-charge community version. Some vendors operate on a "dual-license" business model, in which customers can buy a license to get access to the vendor's support team or to extra features and extensions for the core software, such as management tools.

According to Mark Driver, an analyst at Gartner, the overwhelming majority of commercial open-source efforts today are based on a dual-license model. Customers should know, he says, that with this option, "the open-source-ness of the product comes into question." While open-source software licenses cost less than commercial software licenses, they include terms and conditions that restrict your use and lock you into a vendor. "We're seeing pushback from users who say, 'I went to open source to avoid these commitments,' as well as those who just want a piece of software that works well and is cheap," Driver says.

Lyman points out that larger enterprises often have the development resources to work with community versions of open-source applications, but even they might find reasons to purchase a license, such as a need for service-level agreements.

Not so for NPC International Inc., which operates more than 1,150 Pizza Hut restaurants worldwide. Five years ago, it used very little open-source software, whereas today it tries diligently to avoid commercially licensed software if there's an alternative, says Jon Brisbin, portal webmaster at NPC. The franchisee started migrating to open source when it converted its point-of-sale system from dBase to PostgreSQL; that deployment has grown to 10,000 installations.

On the other hand, says James Sims, CIO at Save Mart Supermarkets, buying an enterprise license from Ingres was a financially sound decision. Save Mart uses several open-source applications, including PostgreSQL, Apache Lucene, Red Hat Linux, MySQL, and Xymon, and it runs its payroll and time-and-attendance systems on an Ingres- and SUSE Linux-based system. It started out using the public domain version of Ingres but experienced challenges that were related to the software's inability to effectively use a database for a company of Save Mart's size. Sims turned to Ingres for support, which led to a contractual agreement. While the costs are comparable to what he'd pay a commercial database company, "we get incredible support -- more than they should provide," he says.

Similarly, Bassim Hamadeh, founder of custom educational publishing firm University Readers, purchased a license for SugarCRM three years ago, after using the community version for a couple of years. "Our IT manager read about Sugar 2.0, installed it, and within a week, we were using it," he says. At approximately $350 per user per year, he says the price is 20 percent to 25 percent that of a system like Salesforce.com, and it enables the company to use additional features such as a robust reporting tool, a workflow system and automated triggers.

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 use 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 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

Organizations 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 organizations 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 license 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 realizing savings but can't prove it. "The key to minimizing the potential downside and maximizing the upside is governance," Driver says. "Without that, you're shooting in the dark."

At the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, Chan is creating a direct comparison between the cost and performance of the new IT environment and the older one. He cautions that it requires an investment of resources to run tests and create meaningful benchmarks.

And even if you're only planning to use the software internally, it's important to ensure that the legal department understands the numerous types of licenses available, Driver says. "Restrictions vary, sometimes dramatically," he says. "You don't want to get a letter from your lawyer with an injunction because your open-source solution violated someone else's intellectual property."

Fitting open-source technology into your current infrastructure is another thorny issue. Three years ago, Roy Mentkow, director of technology for the city of Roanoke, Va., decided to transition from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice. However, for some users, desktop applications were heavily integrated with Lotus Notes workflows. "We had to ensure OpenOffice worked well with Notes on an application-by-application basis," Mentkow says. "That was something that snuck up on us."

In the end, the city migrated about half of its 900 users, resulting in $140,000 in savings. Still, Mentkow says, the savings won't come all at once but rather when those desktops would have been upgraded to a new version of Microsoft Office.

It's also important to look beyond another widely touted benefit of open-source software: the ready pool of developers who are familiar with the technology and see the prospect of using it as a retention or hiring plus. While it's true that developers are plentiful and eager to work with open source, that expertise can come at a price.

"If you asked a developer if they'd like to work with open-source or commercial software, eight times out of 10 they'll say open source," Lyman contends. And some developers may charge less than developers who work with commercial products.

Hamadeh says that with SugarCRM, it's even possible to "have a local student come in and program something in a couple of hours," Hamadeh says, or a tech-savvy business person can create custom modules. But, he cautions, while there are some SugarCRM consultants who will do a great job, they can be expensive, so having internal IT talent can help you avoid added costs.

Brisbin points out that the success of open source at NPC is due largely to the fact that its developers have a breadth of knowledge and are willing to work outside of narrowly defined silos.

"We have small development teams, and we cross areas of responsibility," he says, noting that he routinely moves among RPG, Java, Web front-end development, PostgreSQL and the underlying application system. "There is a critical mass of information you need to have as a developer to do open source effectively," Brisbin adds.

And then there's one of the more hard-to-quantify costs: cultural change. Mentkow says Roanoke's move to OpenOffice involved changing the culture as much as it did changing the desktops. "Cultural change does not happen in moments," he says. "As we move to different platforms and different standards, what we have to see is an acceptance of those changes."

Sims adds that it's easier to achieve cultural change at organizations that value resourcefulness and courage, since moving to open source represents a break from the approach that involves seeking traditional answers to difficult problems. "People still say you can't get fired for buying Microsoft or Oracle -- how about, you should get fired for not coming up with the best scenario that meets your company's unique criteria, regardless of conventional wisdom," he says.

As open source matures, companies will begin to get past the misconceptions, understand the implications and balance the benefits with the downsides. "Most of the time when there's a problem, it's because there's an assumption of 'It works, and when it doesn't, we'll fix it ourselves or find the answer on the Internet,' " Driver says. "Or there's an assumption that the cost of acquisition can be extrapolated to total cost of ownership. But there's a care and feeding cost to everything."

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

This story, "Open source software's hidden snags" was originally published by Computerworld .

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