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Apples, Oranges, and Open Source

August 12, 2010

Apples & Oranges

Comparing open source vs. proprietary software is like comparing apples and oranges. It’s a comparison that just doesn’t make sense for anything other than the basic comparison of licensing rights.

There are great variations among open source options, and among proprietary options. Yet many conversations about open source software tend to use very broad generalizations and treat each of these (open or proprietary) as a distinct thing. I’m involved in a lot of conversations about adopting open source software and I’m always struck by the black & white view of proprietary vs. open.

At the highest level organizations and even governments are adopting an ideological disposition that favors “open” vs. “closed.” In the education community there is often an affinity toward openness because of the alignment with core values and the mission of the academy. This is a good and healthy way to set strategy.

When it comes to making a decision about a particular need though, many people and organizations are looking for a pragmatic approach to making decisions about their options. Even those who have an established strategy that considers open source need to make specific decisions about the options for a particular need. This is where the simple open source vs. proprietary discussion breaks down. The general distinctions between open source and proprietary provide almost no useful information to inform a choice between X open source product, and Y proprietary product. In fact, most often, the choice isn’t really between X and Y, it’s between W, X, Y, and Z, where the other options represent the new choices afforded by open licensing.

Colleges, universities, K-12 schools and districts, have more choice today than ever when it comes to enterprise software. Despite a great deal of consolidation in the proprietary software vendor space, the emergence of community-developed, open licensed software, and SaaS services have more than filled the competitive void. I work in the Kuali and Sakai communities that together produce some of the most mission-critical enterprise systems for schools: eLearning Platform, Financials, Research, Student, Business Continuity, and more.

Some of the most important questions an institution can ask when considering the various options aren’t those that appear in an RFP with a feature matrix. They are introspective questions about institutional culture and capabilities–where the institution is today, and where it would like to be. And also, of course, what are the goals for the new system?

I spend a lot of time talking to people considering open source “alternatives” to the proprietary eLearning and ERP systems. I’ve recently begun to use a tool in those conversations that helps facilitate the conversation. If I’m near a whiteboard I’ll use that, otherwise the iPad makes a good mobile whiteboard alternative. Here’s a snapshot from a recent conversation:

This simple visual has been a very effective way of elaborating the choices for these software needs and comparing them on two dimensions. The two I’ve focused on have been cost and control. I typically talk about 5 different sourcing options:

  • Licensed proprietary software
  • “Home grown” software developed at the institution
  • “DIY” (do-it-yourself) open source software (OSS)
  • Commercial OSS
  • Software as a Service (SaaS) OSS

Among the various choices it’s fairly easy to paint a picture of the options relative to cost and control tradeoffs. These aren’t the only dimensions to consider, but they are two that should be central to the decision. I should also note that control can directly relate to risk, strategic fit, and institutional capabilities (both current and desired future). One of the other reasons I’ve often focused on cost / control is because one of the most often cited reasons for looking at open source eLearning or ERP options is greater control.

You might be looking at the diagram, thinking… “He’s nuts. That green dot should be lower (or higher) or further to the right.” Good thinking. There isn’t one right way to paint this picture. It’s a conversational tool that needs to be adapted to fit the specific situation you’re talking about. I believe that there’s some “rough general truth” to the relative positions I’ve indicated, but the real usefulness is in the conversation & thinking that this tool facilitates, not where I’ve placed the data points.

As a starting point I’ll use this to understand current institutional culture and capabilities. How are systems generally sourced today? In some cases economics or new institutional leadership are driving a cultural change. The diagram can be a useful tool to understand how the various options support that desired change. It’s also interesting to note that the culture around things like eLearning or Research might be very different than the culture around Financials.

One of the most interesting conversations is about the various open source options. Ok, this is probably most interesting because it’s where I’ve focused for the past 8 years or so. Most people assume that to consider open source they have to hire software engineers and generally have to support it differently than the proprietary system they are replacing (the “DIY OSS” option). By the way most research and media coverage makes the same assumption. The visual helps to clarify that option relative to other options. There are good reasons an institution might move from proprietary or home grown to DIY OSS. There may be a strong institutional culture driving it. Often though, institutions believe that to leverage something like the Sakai eLearning platform they have to move to DIY OSS. And if that’s not a match to the institutional culture, or they don’t have the resources and don’t want to build the necessary capacity, the analysis stops. Most institutions, in fact, adopt open source software in the very same way they adopt proprietary software. But the options aren’t widely understood.

If you are involved in sourcing a replacement system, or a new capability for your institution. You have lots of options. Consider them all. You may find that’s it’s a useful exercise to compare the characteristics of each that are important to your institution. This should be a very strategic discussion that starts by determining the characteristics that are important to your institution: cost, risk, capabilities, control of future capabilities, alignment of values, future potential, opportunities for staff development, opportunities to align with peer institutions, etc.  From there it’s a much simpler comparison exercise to understand how each option supports your goals.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 13, 2010 3:06 pm

    Chris,

    This is a great article and we’ve been having many of the same discussions so it’s very timely. If you were to add another axis to your graph I’d recommend “sustainability”. We’re hearing from quite a few people that they’re concerned about the long term viability of the availably products. The really interesting thing is that unlike 5 years ago it’s the commercial products that are taking a hit on this, not the open source products. We’ve come a long way from the days where open source software was considered fragile and off the shelf was the standard.

    Chris Thompson
    President – Moderas
    http://www.moderas.org
    (518) 412-2020

    • August 14, 2010 10:05 am

      Thanks for the comment Chris. Sustainability is a good one. Indeed, sustainability is one of the more important factors.

      I haven’t thought about using the chart in this post to talk about sustainability but I suppose it could be used. I’m not sure sustainability could be plotted directly, but a picture of sustainability could be achieved by identifying the factors that impact sustainability. I don’t have a comprehensive list but I suspect that it would include things like:

      - ability to maintain and improve the software
      - a vibrant user community
      - predictable and consistent costs
      - longevity (from an ownership perspective)

      Sustainability is a tricky thing to quantify, I think. Look at the recent acquisition of Elluminate and Wimba, for example. There was a conversation on the Educause CIO list a couple days ago about the cost of Wimba going up 70% over the prior year with notice only two weeks before classes start. Is that sustainable? How would we have assessed the sustainability risk a year or two ago?

  2. Jeff (no, the other one) permalink
    August 17, 2010 10:39 am

    Sustainability is a critical concern in a situation where funding may be available on a limited-political-time-offer basis (new governor, new power structure in the state legislature after upcoming elections, etc.).

    In other words, “buy it NOW! before the money goes away!!” And then think later about how to fund ongoing maintenance costs.

    I once had a textbook list of 13 strategic planning mistakes that organizations make, where’d I put it…?

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  1. The last mile – making open source software accessible « Chris Coppola's Blog

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