Free Software is not a Free Solution

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While 20 years ago the idea of using free and open-source software within an organization was sometimes a difficult sale, these days no one doubts the power and usefulness of these solutions. However, there is often a large misconception that because the software is “free” as in “zero cost” for licenses that there is a “zero cost” to use it.

If you have no experience with the open source software you want to use, then you have to spend time learning it. If you are unaware of the options for the problem you are trying to solve, then you may need to spend time learning a number of different tools in order to decide which one is right for you.

Once you have chosen an application, you then need to maintain and upgrade it over time. Depending on the role it will play in your organization, you may end up hiring one or more people to manage it. All of these things have a real cost. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t use open source software, but the decision should come with an appropriate budget to insure success.

There are a couple of ways one can maximize the success of an open source migration. One way is to use a hosted version of the software. For example, I am a big fan of Wordpess, and I find it pretty easy to use and maintain. However, if you don’t have a server on which to run it or you aren’t familiar with maintaining such a server, you can go to wordpress.com and purchase a hosted version for a relatively minimal cost. They will handle the upgrades, backups, etc.

But not all problems can be solved with hosted solutions. For a variety of reasons it may be better to host a solution on-premises. Perhaps you already have the infrastructure to host it. Perhaps there are security or privacy issues involved in your business that you just can’t hand off to a third party. In that case it can be cost effective to hire an open source expert to help with the initial deployment of your solution as well as periodic updates.

As one such consultant, I often refer to myself as a plumber. I live on a farm and while I am relatively comfortable working on anything that requires construction or electrical work, I am not good at plumbing. While I can buy the same pipes and fittings as a real plumber, I end up wet, depressed and the job takes much longer than it should. So I hire a real plumber for those jobs and overall the real cost is less than if I did it myself.

The same thing applies to open source. No proprietary software can match the power and flexibility of most open source solutions, but the opportunity cost of the extra time needed to implement them often makes getting help, especially in the beginning, a good business decision.