Open Source vs. Proprietary Intranet Software, Part 1

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (30-Jul-2008)

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At first glance it might seem like a no-brainer: Get your intranet software and its source code for free or pay big bucks for proprietary, closed source software. But deciding to adopt either open source or proprietary software must go beyond the issue of money.

Popular open source software such as Drupal, Joomla!, and Plone are provided for free, but the greatest advantage comes in the form of increased flexibility and total control over customization of the product. This allows you to develop a more tailored solution for your organization's needs. But there's a catch: You have to know what you're doing.

While these types of open source solutions are a great choice for organizations that have highly technical staff or the financial means to hire outside developers, organizations with little in-house IT resources might find the learning curve too steep and the lack or "formal" support a bit disconcerting.

Which is best for you? In this three-part series, I'll be giving you an overview of the advantages of choosing one over the other, concluding with a comparison of the two.

So why open source? There are many reasons to go this route; five of the most common are:

Freedom from "The Man"

There's not much freedom when it comes to proprietary, commercial software. Although they would never admit it, commercial software makers' main goal isn't necessarily to provide you with the best possible solution, it's to make a product that's sellable to as large an audience as possible. And when they do sell it to you, their goal is to keep you tied to their product for as long as possible. This leaves your intranet and its content at the mercy of proprietary software makers' development cycle.

Open source software, licensed under a free software license such as the GNU General Public License (GPL), represents ultimate freedom. It represents flexibility and control over customization and distribution, minimizing vendor dependency and lock-in, avoiding restrictive and costly licensing agreements, and reducing total cost of ownership. In short, deciding one's own software fate.

Cost of ownership

Proprietary, commercial software can be quite pricey. You have to pay for the software, the licenses (whether per seat or site-wide), technical support and user manuals (if not provided), and future upgrades and releases. You end up incurring these rolling costs for the life of your system. In some cases, depending on your licensing agreement, you'll still be paying for the software even after your intranet dies.

Free, open source software won't cost you anything upfront (I'll discuss the costs of development in part 2). Most installation and user documentation is provided online or via downloadable PDFs, and there's plenty of support via community-based discussion forums. Also, there's nothing to lose. You can download and experiment with the fully functional open source software before committing to it, and it won't cost you anything except time.

Experienced support communities

With the sorry state of technical support resulting from offshoring, "formal" tech support offered by proprietary software firms has lost much of its luster. In many cases, if you want real tech support beyond the typical FAQ type questions, you'll have to pay a premium—either in the form of costly support licenses or pay-per-call fees.

Contrary to what many people think, open source software is supported. Although there isn't a formal support department, open source software has plenty of community-based support options. The popular open source software Drupal, for instance, has a very knowledgeable and active support network in the form of online discussion forums. In many cases, you'll find that contributors to open source tech support communities are a lot more knowledgeable than the front line tech support agents working for proprietary software makers who probably gleaned elementary knowledge of the product from a weekend seminar.

Support contributors to open source software are often developers themselves with real, hands-on experience. They might have developed a similar solution to the one you're building or have encountered and overcome the very same roadblocks you're dealing with. The collective experience and knowledge of these contributors forms a very solid network of support.

Software customization

Proprietary software is protected by very strict copyright and licensing agreements which greatly affects what you can do with the software and how it can be used. It's often designed to accommodate and appeal to the widest possible audience in order to maximize sales. But what do you do if your organization has very specific business needs, requiring a more tailored solution? If you're lucky, the software maker might have what you need on its list of "upcoming features". If you're unlucky, you'll have to bend your business process to the software's abilities.

Open source software solutions, on the other hand, are licensed under a free software license. This enables you to fine-tune your software to your organization's specific needs (as long as you have the expertise and the resources with which to do so), giving you a much more tailored solution.

Product longevity

Adopting proprietary software puts you at the mercy of the software maker. They might determine that the software is no longer marketable and drop it from their product line, or they might decide to change the software's underlying architecture and technology, making it incompatible with previous versions. Whatever the case may be, the longevity of your system is going to be dependent on the software maker's R&D or marketing strategy.

The technology backbone of many open source software is based on popular, industry standard languages such as PHP or Java, and databases such as MySQL or PostgreSQL. There are plenty of developers with experience in these technologies so open source software puts the longevity of your system in your own hands. You decide what you want to change and when you want to change it. Your open source solution will "live" as long as you have people—whether in-house or third party—willing to manage your system and provide future development.

To be continued...

In August, I'll continue this discussion and make a case for investing in proprietary, commercial software.

Copyright © 2008 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.