Open Source Vs Proprietary - Which Type of IT Solution Is Best For Your Business
It’s a no-brainer. Acquire the solution that is the only solution available. Especially if you have the budget for it and its benefits are crucial to your business. However, what if there are two or more equally attractive options? Oftentimes, the options belong to one of two camps - open source and proprietary. Which one is best for your business?
It’s important to identify the advantages of each camp before you start choosing, because a lot of the problems you can encounter later on are simply due to misconceptions about these two families of software.
There are now many grey areas in the market. For example, a proprietary solution also exposes a substantial, but not total, part of its source code to the public. In this article, we’ll only be focusing our discussions on traditional open source solutions and traditional proprietary solutions.
Known advantages of open source
First, let’s highlight the major benefits for which open source is known.
Lower Total Cost of Acquisition
To most IT customers, open-source is usually perceived to be free. That’s not entirely true. Generally speaking, what is free is the licence only — you know, that document that grants you the right to use whatever software is covered by that particular licence.
So, because an open-source licence would typically allow you to use, modify and share the software without imposing any financial obligation on your part, the total cost of acquisition (TCA) of an open-source software can be relatively minimal compared to its proprietary counterparts.
Savings in licencing costs can be very substantial, especially if you’re talking about enterprise-grade solutions. Enterprise-class proprietary solutions can run up to 5 or 6 figures because many of them charge on a per-host or per-user basis. So, if you need to install proprietary software on tens or hundreds of machines, the difference in cost (i.e. zero against £100,000 or even just £10,000) can certainly be a compelling reason to select an open-source alternative.
More customisable, extensible
The ‘open’ in open source refers to the source code. That means you could actually view (and modify) the software application’s source code if you wanted to. This alone has countless benefits, including the ability to customise the application to suit your specific needs/requirements for any business with skilled in-house developers.
Proprietary solutions normally don’t share their source code, so you’re restricted to their built-in functionalities and capabilities. Although some applications are able to provide some degree of extensibility through APIs, the flexibility you get from a fully open-source solution is still substantially greater.
Open for scrutiny
Because the source code is open, it is readily available for review. This can be very beneficial from a security standpoint. That means, security specialists can study and scrutinise the code and identify any vulnerabilities that may be present.
Better integration capabilities
Lastly, if its source code is visible and customisable, an application will lend itself better to integrations. Meaning, you can easily connect it to other existing applications in your network and multiply the benefits each solution can provide individually.
The truth about the costs of proprietary solutions
Proprietary solutions are generally perceived to be more expensive than their open-source counterparts, whose TCAs, as mentioned earlier, are almost zero. This has been one of the major reasons why some companies choose open source alternatives.
However, when you acquire a piece of software, your costs won’t end with the purchase. The solution will incur costs throughout its lifetime. So you need to factor these in if you really want a complete picture of a solution’s affordability.
Let me explain.
Some of the costs of software reveal themselves when you start integrating the newly acquired solution to other existing solutions on your network. While open source solutions are theoretically more ‘integratable’ from a technical standpoint, that advantage will only hold if you have someone with the required skillset in-house to carry out the integrations.
If you don’t, that advantage could slowly erode. Finding the required talent outside of your organisation is much harder if you’re using an open-source solution than if you’re using a proprietary one. If you’re using a proprietary solution, it’s possible that the company developing the solution is already equipped to assist you with that integration.
The necessary talent is even harder to find if the solution is more specialised. If that happens, any capable professional you’ll find who can do the job for you will likely charge high professional fees.
Cost of unresolved issues
Other costs emerge once you encounter difficulties or issues. A lot of the open-source solutions out there provide support mainly through ‘communities’. While some software communities consist of very helpful members, these members aren’t bound by any service level agreement (SLA). That means, they might only reply during their free time. Thus, if the issue you need to be resolved is mission-critical and affects your business operations, you could suffer a considerable amount of downtime that could in turn result in huge revenue loss.
Proprietary solutions usually have a dedicated tech support team to assist you in troubleshooting and resolving issues or requesting patches when bugs are found. Some companies even offer 24x7 support, so you can get the help you need at any time. Although higher levels of support will naturally charge a fee, you’ll likely be happy to pay for it than go through a lengthy (and more costly) downtime.
An alternative would be to hire an IT support company that has proven experience and expertise with the solution you need help with. Just make sure you’re dealing with a trustworthy and reputable firm.
Lower Total Cost of Ownership (than what is generally perceived)
All the above arguments mean that while proprietary solutions generally provide a much higher TCA, their total cost of ownership (TCO) can still be on par with open source in the end.
This is an important point because it debunks the myth that open source solutions are more affordable. In the long run, you could end up spending just about the same on either option. To clarify, this isn’t an advantage of proprietary. But it’s worth pointing out because, let’s face it, cost considerations are a key factor in purchase/acquisition decisions.
So, which is better — Open Source or Proprietary?
Ok, so we now know that open source and proprietary solutions cost about the same in the long run. But what about the other advantages of open source outlined earlier, like extensibility and customisability? You certainly can’t find those in proprietary.
That’s true. However, you should note that those advantages will only matter if the benefits are really substantial and worth the associated costs. For all you know, the APIs provided by the proprietary alternative will already suffice.
So if we really break it down, choosing between open source and proprietary all boils down to what your company is more comfortable with and more capable of handling. You can start by auditing your in-house talent. If they’re more attuned to a proprietary solution, then you choose proprietary. If they’re more familiar with the open source alternative, then go for that. If you really don’t have the talent for either one, hire a reputable IT support company.