How To Choose Between Open Source and Commercial Software
The days of needing to spend large sums of money on proprietary commercial software have long gone. With the growth of open-source software and the greater support it is receiving from many big organizations, there is a lot more credibility with open-source software. No longer is open source software a poorly supported and inferior quality alternative, with many open source projects often exceeding commercial products in the features they offer and the overall quality of the software’s usage.
However, for many companies, that has only complicated the decision on which direction to go. And whether they start to embrace open source technology and perhaps save themselves on some licensing fees or stick with commercial tools which, while expensive, may still be able to offer more customized service.
So to help prepare companies for making these critical decisions, we have prepared a collection of advantages and disadvantages of both open source and commercial software, along with some tips on how you can weigh up the different choices and choose the best option for you.
Advantages of open source
We’ll start by looking at open-source software and the different advantages and disadvantages that are on offer:
One of the most obvious considerations behind using open-source software is the cost. Saving money on software allows companies to spend money elsewhere - most importantly their internal systems and staff salaries, which are of more value to any company. However, it's worth mentioning that not all open-source software is “free” and there are often restrictions in the licensing agreements on what constitutes free use of the software or commercial use of the software. So be clear when making this distinction and whether it is going to save money for your company in this area.
One of the best aspects of open-source software is the freedom to adapt and modify it to better suit your needs. Whereas with commercial solutions you are stuck with how they work and need to adjust your processes to match their use cases, open-source software provides you with plenty of flexibility to make changes that better suit your organization.
If there is one thing software development teams hate, it is dealing with contract legalities and requirements With open-source software, this is removed as the software is open to use and be modified, so there is little need to worry about trying to protect certain intellectual property which means that companies can just focus on delivering functionality that is of value to the customer without concerning themselves with these matters.
With the community mindset that forms many open-source projects, you have the shared benefit of many collective minds trying to solve various problems. This means that any problems you might have found with the software, other companies may also experience and can draw upon the skills of different people across different organizations to add these features and fixes into the software, often coming up with better solutions a lot faster than what might have been achieved had a company tried to build those features on their own.
Disadvantages of open source
At this point, it might seem like a foregone conclusion to adopt open-source software, but there are some drawbacks that need to be considered too:
When things go wrong and you need some assistance in using the software, the lack of support can be an issue with open-source software (though some companies do offer support options at a price). That ability to pick up a phone or fire off an email and get help is lacking and if you as a company are not prepared to support and work on the software yourself, open-source might not be the best option for you and you may prefer to pay for that sort of support.
If there is another thing that many developers dislike about its documentation. And as a result, a lot of open-source products can offer pretty poor or outdated documentation as no one is hired to specifically look after this. As a result, when trying to find information about the software, you might find some difficulty and often need to resort to the code itself to figure out what is going on.
And while many developers like to believe that their software UI is fairly intuitive to use, without specialist designers, it may often look far less polished and intuitive than it should, making the lack of documentation even more frustrating.
With more people adding code to the open-source repository, it can become quite complex to understand the code. Even if certain coding standards and design principles are maintained, a lack of consistency, poor commenting, or rushed problem-solving as the developers have other full-time jobs to attend to, can often lead some of the code to be quite complex in nature. With open-source software also trying to cater to as many different companies as possible, also increases that complexity and makes the code unoptimized for a specific company's needs.
Easier to detect vulnerabilities
Finally, one of the open source’s biggest advantages - transparent, customizable code which is accessible by anyone - can also be turned into a disadvantage. If the code contains vulnerabilities that can be exploited - which is made easier when these can be viewed for themselves - malicious actors may capitalize upon this. Without a proprietary vendor on the hook for releasing updates, fixes may be slower to arrive, though the converse is true and they can also come quiver as well. It’s that lack of accountability to ensure security though, that some companies may view as a big security threat when it comes to working with open-source technology.
Advantages of proprietary software
And as mentioned earlier, while a lot of commercial software is deemed less cool by certain people in the tech community, there is still a lot of benefit to choosing this approach for certain software. Below are some of the key advantages that can often influence a company’s decision to choose a commercial tool and deem the extra costs still worth it.
Accountability and Integration across products
In working with a single vendor, there is at least an accountable organization to keep the software updated and if you use multiple tools from this single vendor, they can often integrate fairly seamlessly and require less customization - which is often required on the open-source side.
At an enterprise level, there is a lot to consider from a legal, compliance, and scale standpoint and they need tailored solutions that help them to achieve this. With a lot of open source solutions targeting smaller organizations, their needs can get lost and so they prefer to work with commercial solutions that are better catering to their bigger organizational needs.
Professional interface and documentation
Counter to the open-source experience, commercial tools are often very well designed from a UX perspective, with a consistent and intuitive design with a lot of effort put into the documentation and various support tools built into the software as well.
With security compliance a critical thing for all companies to adhere to, there is comfort in knowing that a big company is driving this and ensuring that their software is kept up to date with all the latest security developments. This is especially handy if your company is not primarily tech-focused and it can free up some resources from needing to worry about this.
Investments can pay off
Commercial products can certainly be expensive, but if you can learn to work with them and take advantage of all their features, it can often pay off as the time saved on integration or working with open-source software adds up over time.
Disadvantages of proprietary software
And I guess we wouldn’t be having this debate if commercial software didn’t have its issues. As the cost focus is an obvious one, we won’t focus on that directly, but rather look at other difficulties which often come with working with commercial software.
Products can be bulky
Many of these big, expensive enterprise-level tools come littered with fantastic features. The problem is, most companies don’t need most of them and end up often using only a fraction of what these tools offer. This makes the overall design of the products bulky as they are trying to cater to a wide range of offerings whereas often the clients would just prefer a tool that is more focused and straightforward to use.
Cost surprises and confusing licensing
Yes, costs are the biggest issue with most commercial solutions, but if those costs were fixed or predictable, they could be easy to work with. However, many companies add things like support fees on top of the general licensing agreement or want fees to be paid annually, rather than monthly, or put certain features behind a paywall which makes it not only confusing to work with, but potentially more expensive than anticipated and not always worth the return on investment as a result.
Dependence on vendors
In building a dependence on a set of commercial tools that work a fixed way, companies can easily become dependent on using these tools. Sadly, most commercial tools don’t make moving away from them very easy and so companies transitioning to a different tool, working in a very customized way that is drastically different from their competitors, or wanting to go open-source that it means they may end up choosing to just stick with paying licensing fees over compared to the cost and effort of change.
Now, ultimately, I can't blame companies for protecting their intellectual property and looking to diversify themselves in operation, but the difficulty in changing vendors can be frustrating and is certainly a barrier to entry for many companies wanting to prevent this in the future.
So how do you choose?
Having a good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of open-source and commercial solutions is only part of making the decision. Certainly advantages and disadvantages may apply differently based on need and context and so no one best solution suits any particular company.
So when weighing up this decision as a company you need to consider the following factors:
Point number one is definitely budget. Though it's perhaps not as obvious as you expect, because it's not simply about licensing costs that not all companies may want to afford but also around the man-hour costs of supporting open source software should they choose not to go with licensing costs. For small companies, it often makes more sense to go open-source as you don’t want to pay the expensive licensing and support costs and may be able to work with software that is not as fully featured as your development costs are smaller. For a big-budget company with many different development teams, while they can afford to have people fiddle and adapt tools of their own, it might be more efficient to spend that money on a tool that frees up their teams to do what they do best.
Another big criterion is the technical expertise of your team. If you have strong tech-focused DevOps teams that want tools to be catered around their way of working, open source makes sense as there will be an appetite for people to work with them. If this is not your core business, then any work put into supporting tools may just be wasteful and they may be best used just by paying for a fully featured tool to do it for you.
Scale is another big aspect to consider in tools. Small teams and companies will often prefer open-source tools as they can cater to them to work around their needs. When operating at scale when you have many teams working differently across big products, you need more of a standard way of operating and a tool that is designed to operate at scale - something which sot commercial tools can provide with ease.
Flexibility and Appetite for Failure
How flexible a company is and its willingness to experiment and fix mistakes along the way are also crucial. Commercial tools may be pensive, but once you get them working, they tend to be quite reliable. Open source and its inevitable tinkering may lead to more issues - at least initially - and companies need to be prepared for these learning curves. If you as a company don’t mind this and value the learning process it gives engineers, then open source is a good option for you.
Understanding why you want to make a potential transition to open-source tooling is critical, as is understanding the when. It might be beneficial to companies to try and make these transitions quickly to save on further licensing fees, but the truth is that transitions take time and if you rush the decision-making and implementation, you are likely doomed for failure. Not only should your architecture team take their time in evaluating the alternatives by preferably planning with different trial versions of software to see how it works and integrates, but a clear transition roadmap should be put together to understand how long this could take and the appropriate amount of time given to allow for a transition. Along with some additional contingency time, as transitions tend to always uncover issues and impact productivity along the way (at least in the initial few months) and so you want to understand that and see the bigger picture for how long a translation could take and whether that timeline suits the development pipeline of your organization.
Making that decision
As you can tell from this article, making the decision to go open-source is a lot more important than just a purely financial one or trying to achieve that “cool factor” as an organization. There are benefits and cons on both sides of the equation, but as long as you and your team are aware of these and able to weigh them up against how your company operates, then you are well-placed to make the right decision.
Critically, as with most business decisions, you will need to look into the financial impacts of the change and whether you will receive the relevant Return On Investment. The only way to fully understand the effort implications described above against any potential cost and process benefits the new tool will provide is to actually play with versions of the different tools themselves.
It’s easy to fall for the “sales pitch” of vendors or certain open-source aficionados, but until you can get a version of a tool running in a trial project and see the feasibility of its benefits, you can't know for certain if it's the right approach for you and your team/company.
Once you do, it's important to try and quantify any benefits in terms of time and money as best as possible along with the transition effort and maintenance efforts as described above, and graph these over a timeline of 5 months to at least 5 years to better understand if it would work for you as a company.
This might not always be easy to quantify, but it's important to try and do this as best as possible across all the different options to gain confidence in whichever approach you take while also providing the business with that critical ROI information it requires.
There is no simple choice to make here and many companies may make a hybrid approach toward using open-source and commercial tools based on the needs of their different products, systems, and team. Hopefully, these tips will guide you and your team in the right direction and allow you to make the right decisions about your relationship between open-source technologies and commercial tools.