As an employee of a small-to-medium sized business (SMB), I find myself constantly questioning how proprietary software vendors are going to be able to compete with Open Source Software in the SMB space over the next few years. I am in the middle of a full blown SOA and BPM initiative. We have spent a few bucks on the SOA stack from a major vendor betting on the fact that there was a lot of value in an integrated stack. The reality is that the big vendors are buying pure play vendors to complete their suite of SOA tools and these products are still 12-18 months away from being fully integrated. In other words, the integration is not there yet.
We are now looking at tools in the areas of SOA Governance, SOA Testing, and registries and repositories. The cost of procuring commercial software products for these tools exceeds the cost of the entire SOA stack (BPM, ESB, and Data Services)! It was hard enough to get the funding to purchase the stack. It will be even harder to get the funds for tools such as these that are transparent to the users. IT must fund these tools. Of course, most SMB IT shops are working on limited budgets that are flat or modestly increased year after year. Salaries and rising health insurance costs eat up the budget and IT must find creative ways to make up the difference. Spending a ton of money on governance tools is not my idea of creative cost reduction.
We have been evaluating several vendor solutions recently. These tools are built with features to satisfy every customer possible. SMB's do not have the resources that can be dedicated to these tools to take advantage of even 50% of the features. In my case, the team that would administer these tools are already responsible for many other tools. What this equates to is paying big bucks for rich features that I can't use. It's like buying an RV for a 5 mile commute to work.
Then there are the open source solutions. There are several viable options like Centrasite for the registry/repository which provides most of the necessary features that we need. For those few features that are lacking we can pay a small fee for the enterprise addition or just add the features to the code ourselves. SOA is just one area where I see SMB's favoring Open Source Software over the big proprietary vendors. Portal, Content Management (ECM), ERP, and CRM are other examples. Like SOA, ERP, CRM, and ECM software is typically way too expensive for SMB's. Open Source allows companies with smaller budgets to take advantage of these technologies. Many people who are anti open source or who just haven't been keeping up with how far Open Source Software has come over the past few years will question the robustness of the feature set, the integration, the support, and the quality of the software. Let me addres each issue one at a time:
- Feature set - As I stated above, SMB's typically don't need or don't have the resources to even use many of the features in the big vendor enterprise packages. Out of necessity, most SMB's need to keep things simple and manageable and use only what makes sense.
- Integration - I laugh when big vendors raise flags about Open Source and integration. The big vendors' products have so many integration issues amongst their own products because half of their products are the result of pure play purchases. They usually have to bring in sales people from four or five different divisions (former pure play companies) just to answer your basic questions.
- Support - Nothing is more frustrating then paying 20% of the purchase price for maintenance annually to have some college kid from India search a knowledge base article on the web in an attempt to solve your support problems. Even when you get your case escalated to people who actually know the product, SMB's rarely get the necessary priority because the vendors cater to their billion dollar customers. SMB's typically can't afford platinum level support which gets you immediate attention when you have issues. My experience with Open Source support has been extremely responsive. There are also Open Source Service Providers whose core competency is support.
- Quality - This is the myth of myths. How can you beat the global peer review process in the world of Open Source? You literally have hundreds of sets of eyes reviewing and testing code. My colleague Eric Roch will say that commercial software is in the state of "Perpetual Beta". The vendors are in such a rush to get a leg up on the competition that they are sacrificing quality for release dates. I see this with SOA where vendors are pushing product out the door too fast to the extent where I feel like a beta tester instead of a paying customer.
Another advantage of Open Source software is you can try before you buy. I can start using a light weight registry/repository and learn what features are really important to me. This could be a better plan then buying the full blown feature rich six-figure proprietary solution only to find out that I only need 25% of the features.
For those of you with billion dollar budgets, all of this may seem like nonsense. For those of us who have to find creative ways to move IT forward within the constraints of modest budgets, investing in Open Source Software is a great way to stay competitive and deliver modern technology to support your business's goals and objectives.