A buyer's guide to open source

Open source provides low-cost, community-supported alternatives to commercial enterprise apps

Build or buy? It's a question that vexes every enterprise IT manager. On the one hand, developing applications from scratch can be a difficult endeavor, one fraught with the possibility of failure. On the other hand, high price tags and the aggravation of installation, maintenance, and support contracts can make purchasing a commercial package equally painful.

If you've ever had difficulty deciding between developing an application in-house or purchasing one off the shelf, then open source may be for you. The combination of free access to source code and a worldwide community of developers gives you the best of both worlds. You have the luxury of starting with a mature code base, to which you can add features as your business needs grow.

As recently as a few years ago, however, open source options were limited. Other than Linux, the Apache Web server, a few database servers, and an assortment of developer tools, the open source community didn't have much to offer in terms of turnkey software. The foundations were there, but full-fledged applications were lacking.

Fortunately, that's changing. Individual developers and companies alike have flocked to the open source development model. Today there's a veritable cornucopia of free business software available -- from CRM to content management, portals to RFID -- some of it remarkably sophisticated.

That's not to say deploying open source is a no-brainer. Support contracts must still be taken into account, and licensing issues can lead to thorny problems. Nevertheless, today more than ever, enterprise IT managers can evaluate open source with confidence -- provided they know their options. To that end, InfoWorld presents this buyer's guide to open source enterprise software. We've scoured the ends of the Net to find the top contenders in 12 software categories, including both current and upcoming projects.

It's by no means an exhaustive list; new open source projects are launched every day. But there's a good chance you'll find something here to help you get your next venture up and running at low cost and with a minimum of pain -- including some options that may surprise you. And if it's not here, who knows? Maybe your next in-house project will appear on next year's list.