Over the past few years, open source solutions have been growing in popularity within the enterprise. This article looks at the benefits and challenges of open source development, in particular the advantages to be gained by employing commercial support for open source solutions.

Not just the cheap option

The popularity of open source has been attributed to a number of reasons; with cost being the obvious one. With closed source, there is of course the initial outlay, but there can also be hidden extras: like support charges, ongoing upgrades and training costs, to name but a few.

However, open source has so much more to offer than simply being the ‘cheap’ option. With thousands of developers contributing to a single project, innovation is encouraged and shorter release cycles are often achieved. Such projects also encourage transparency, and communication that can be archived in mailing lists and forums, due to the collaborative effort of a distributed team.

For all the benefits of open source, there are still some common concerns that organisations have when adopting open source solutions. The biggest problem often cited is the lack of professional support. For example, imagine you have an issue which you consider to be time sensitive and mission-critical; is it really feasible to wait in line for your issue to be addressed?

There is no guarantee that what you consider to be high priority is high on the agenda of other members of the community. While forums are undoubtedly a great source of information, rather than providing the information to avert disaster, they are more typically places where the community shares information on bug workarounds and common mistakes.

Get the service you need

To get a quick response to whatever problem you’re encountering with your software, opting for commercial support for your open source solution, is a great idea. By taking this level of rapid response professional support, you’ll have access to an experienced team of core staff developers, who are active members of the open source community, in addition to your own in house team.

Over and above the need for fast delivery of fixes and enhancements, another concern for businesses adopting open source solutions, is that these solutions may expose them to intellectual property claims. However, taking out indemnification coverage as part of a support contract, protects your organisation in the event of a third party filing an intellectual property claim.

Get a provider you trust

When selecting an open source support provider, you must be take care. Like in every industry, there are a few ‘chancers’ out there that try to cash in on a popular open source project. Here’s a quick check list that you might want to consider when selecting a provider:

  • Do they have employees that are full committers (key open source developers) on the project? Without this, it is virtually impossible to support the product (and don’t forget to ask how many!)
  • Do they have global scale? Let’s say you have developers in N. America, Europe, India and China. You will more than likely need 24×7 global, follow-the-sun support. This, however, is easier said than done. Some people solve this with low-cost support centres, but how much do they know about your open source product, and how can you be sure that they will keep your confidential data safe?
  • What support systems do they have? Can you dial a number and get someone on the line in your time-zone? Can you have multiple internal people see and manage support tickets? Is there a knowledge base?
  • Are they passionate? It goes without saying, but to provide great service then you really do have to care. Part of the goal of open source support is to provide direct feedback to make the open source product better. Support providers that are passionate are more than just an insurance policy, they are doing it because they care about the future of the open source product they are supporting.
  • Don’t just buy just an insurance policy. Open source support providers love selling insurance only. Why? Because it’s easy. You’re paying for something that you might use once in a blue moon and the margins on that are huge. Ask yourself if the provider has the ability to fix a corrupted repository or provide impartial advice on tuning your implementation for maximum performance?
  • Don’t be fooled into using their modified version of the OSS. One of the big reasons to use open source software is to avoid vendor lock-in, but make sure you read the small print. Subversion, for example, is licensed under the Apache License, which pretty much allows free use of the software for any purpose (distribute, modify, etc). Other, modified versions of Subversion, may be licensed under more stringent license terms as either a proprietary license or even GPLv3.
  • Does their business model conflict? Ask why the provider is offering open source support. Is it to make money, to create demand for other products or services or because the market needs them to? Whatever the reason, it should be a good one and hopefully not simply to make money.
  • Check out references? There are so many horror stories in the world of open source development; support tickets unanswered for months (and even years), inadequate support systems, lack of knowledgeable staff, using partners to fulfil contracts who have not received adequate training, and lack of integration with open source committers. Just like any enterprise purchase, it’s good practice to exercise due diligence and check a couple of references.

Despite certain barriers to adoption, the benefits of open source development are clear to see. With a full qualification process to ensure the right open source support provider, companies should look more closely at commercially supported versions of these technologies to help propel their technology and businesses to the next level.