The Open Source Software Debate

I want to write this article as a guide on software purchasing and implementation to inform the community of my finding and experience in 13 years of successfully implementing open source and other types of software in hundreds of software implementation projects that I have consulted on.

Let’s first clear the air out of the myth that open source software is free! There is no such thing as free, in a capitalist economy world. What truly exist is different support and license scenarios. There are five basic aspects of software:

  • License cost
  • Implementation cost
  • Upgrade cost
  • Support cost
  • Emergency Response cost

Open source advocating is nothing more than a marketing tool for companies who want to position their product as a low entry cost solution, with typically a higher total cost of ownership due to hidden costs.

Government generation of laws pushing for open source is a big conflict of interest inside the open market as an example: imagine a government platform pushing its people to buy Kellogg’s with a law versus Post brand of cereals, both companies pay taxes and deserve equal right to market and sale. My point of view is that the government should not interfere at the open market level. Now let’s view if the government and private sector really save money using open source.

As discussed before in mission critical systems there are 5 crucial aspects to view before buying and comparing. My honest advise is that people for each project individually evaluate all options as their needs are always unique and this must be analyzed viewing their scenario. They should view security risks, how prone is their organization to evolve, how important is system up time, availability of resources in their area to support and work with the software between other factors.

Open source software can be cheaper or more expensive depending on these factors and I will detail why:

  • License cost: License may be free in many cases or not really, you have to read the agreement. Many times its free to use for x amount of users or for non-commercial use. People still use it and risk fines and other damages. Of course if its free they have no warranties, security considerations or upgrade commitment to their customers. Open source companies can change their mind at any time of their licensing scenario or stop developing for lack of funds and disappear.
  • Implementation cost: Many times and this is not a comprehensive guide to each individual software,  open source software is more expensive to implement for many reasons: lack of support, lack of documentation, incomplete functionality in key modules you may want to use, which have to be developed by the customer separately and many other factors. This factors many times can cost way more than the product license for a ready to use software. This is not an absolute position as I have seen both scenarios were a software is 100% ready to use, just make sure your IT manager reviews all needs in detail.
  • Upgrade cost: Many open source software’s are donated by people that have a real life work and can’t commit to evolve the software your using, thus if your software ages and you are no longer relevant the cost of implementing open source then migrating can be bigger than buying the tool you needed since the beginning. Many open source lack automatic upgrade paths for different versions of their software so you must pay a consultant to migrate it manually.
  • Support cost: support for this software brings 2 concerns: availability of companies to support it and their competitiveness in support costs. Many times the open source software can be rare and you might not have 2-3 companies that can support it. Since the companies are rare and they know it, supports costs can be very high and slow.
  • Emergency Reponses cost: I have had customers on downtime and having to resort only on the open source company that develop the software and had to wait for days without response or resolution. This for mission critical systems is a big problem. When emergencies appear how much does it cost your organization to be down per hour? Are you willing to risk down time to save support or licensing costs?

Other factors often overlooked are:

  • Stress Testing: Many times open source haven’t been tested in different environment thus there hasn’t been code developed to work on bigger environment or integrating with different systems.
  • Usability Testing: software evolution costs a lot of money and time. For a software not be bulky and cumbersome it takes a lot of time in user testing and feedback so that developers reduce the amount of processes and time it requires you to work in order to complete your transactions. Immature software can cost you in longer and bulky transaction process or risk a low user adoption after implementation.
  • Security Hardening: I cant stress the importance of risk mitigation enough. Many of the open source contributors are developers, not security or forensics experts, this means their software might have many security leaks that can put your organization in a legal battle or worst risk compromising your information. There is also the danger of hackers posting software as free so they can snoop in your computers and get your information watch out! When you run into an security issue, you want a company that can fix it or can be made responsible for damages.
  • Cost of Migration: Many organizations think that migrating away from licensing and support costs is always the best alternative. They must make the analysis of how much it costs in labor and implementation costs the migration with customizations to replicate the existing scenario. This many times is way higher than just paying your renewal contract.
  • Who’s backing the software up?: This factors is very important, is the software publisher a one man show moonlighting with a group of community contributors? or is it a corporation with a well-founded service and support methodology?

This article was written not to sway people to buy software, but to view aspects that they should consider when buying software for their organizations. This aspects apply to any type of software you buy in general I just wanted to demystify the concept of free is best.

For government the concept of savings is untrue due to the conflict of interest that has the government backing up companies that do not generate tax revenue for the people. Producing a law of preference would be as bad as offshoring or backing up tax heavens. Paid for software generates industry and jobs. You cannot cannibalize your own market, if the corporations dont thrive the government won’t generate tax revenue.

Companies and organizations willing to implement open source should do so performing a total cost of ownership analysis with a risk assessment. That should be the responsible thing to do always before making any important decision.

Open source alternatives are necessary and not bad, they stimulate competition and give alternative to companies when there is no budget to jump start projects.

Thank you for taking your time to review this article.

About the Author

Industry   Background: Luis Pérez started his technology career providing technology courses in the year 2000 in the midst of the technology transformation inside the pharmaceutical and manufacturing industries. He helped hundreds of employees to transition from manufacturing and equipment monitoring positions into desktop based operators with the windows revolution. After September 11, 2001 the training industry started to shrink and thanks to Hewlett Packard, Abbott and Lilly Pharmaceutical, Luis tested his entrepreneur spirit and started up a small IT services business named Renaissance Group providing IT Training services to them and eventually migrating to e-learning and web development. In 2005 Luis   merged Renaissance Group with former Integratek owners and grew his customer   portfolio. In 2008 Pharma-Bio Serv a Public Local Company developed interest in its potential and placed an offer to buy Integratek and help it grow thus making Integratek a public corporation. He currently serves as a Application Architect and IT Strategist for customers in the government, insurance, pharmaceutical and banking Industries.


Author Luis Pérez
Author Luis Pérez


Luis is the Executive Director for the Puerto Rico Information Technology Cluster and a Board   Member in the International Association of Microsoft Certified Partners in charge of P to P efforts. For any information or visit his personal blog

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