The Dangers of Open Source Software In Critical Business Functions

The move to open source programs has become a mainstream choice, where even large enterprise companies use open source software as part of their critical business processes, such as IT help desks. Many of the leading software competitors in all fields will offer a form or edition of their software that is a lite version, stripped down to bare basics, and some use open source programming . Some would argue that open-source software can be a brilliant lead-in to some of the larger products in any given software niche. To ensure maximum exposure, offering lite or open versions of your app can certainly increase your user adoption. For the Supplier of the software, there are only positives. For the consumer, however, the negative aspects of starting off on these free versions, can easily outweigh the positives.

As a free option, many go for this first, and put time and effort, both expensive commodities for any business, without investigating the full product; the one they would (eventually) have to pay for. Free and open source software popularity continues to grow despite its many dangers and pitfalls. So, what are these dangers?

Let’s take help desk software as an example. For an IT Managed Service Provider (MSP) or IT department supporting internal users, free open-source software seems, at first, a great idea. After all, you have good, sound tech know-how at your fingertips. One of the team knows some HTML, another knows some Microsoft SQL Server, another some basic database skills. You download the free open-source software, spend 10 business hours putting all your end users in, some statuses, and a few categories to report on, and you’re up and running. Simple, right?

OK. Now, go 6 months down the line. Your customer base has grown, you have more staff to train, more customers to support, and the demands on your team grows. Everyone’s earning money, so everyone is happy. That is, until someone realises that the software you implemented was so cheap, the open source code is a nightmare to determine, as different people have different coding methods within the same language. Some will be tidy, others messy. One will think one way, and their counterpart, completely differently. Your customers want reporting. Your bosses are imposing Service Level Agreements, with priority and timings for you and your colleagues to meet. You need to have some calendar appointment function, so you know where you all are in the week. Everyone is too busy on other, time sensitive, financially impacting projects to help you tweak that open source code.  Those 10 business hours now appear to have been a complete waste of time. The costs to your business now are immeasurable, and the task ahead of you, twice as hard.

So, if this is you, or about to be you, what should you be mindful of?

Planning

Some fear this word, but it really shouldn’t be a heavy task. Look at your requirements. No matter the size of your business, sitting with your colleagues over a period of time, discussing their needs and wants, will always lead to a good, basic platform from which to launch your new software acquisition. Otherwise, focussing on something for a while that could only be needed the person who sits next to you, could be a considerable waste to your time.

Associate Time with Cost

So many think that their time is free of charge. They get paid the same regardless, so who cares if the project takes a few months? It’s mostly guaranteed that your boss will, or if you are the boss, you know how precious your time can be, when tasks pull you away from growing your department or business. Nothing like this in life comes for free, and requires effort on your part. In the next 5 years, how much is your new software project going to absorb your time, and take you away from other things? Smart cost association now will mean economic choices long term.

Add Priorities

What are the critical modules essential to providing your service to your customer base? Are there key things your functions will need in the next 12 months, but won’t stop you for the moment. Is the thing you want most, more a “nice to have“, than a critical function? The way to assimilate this, as before, is just to add a monetary value to your requirement. If you’re not a programmer, and believe me, I’m not, simply look at a new drop down menu with a few choices as taking an hour to program. If that menu affects 3 or 4 different areas, and has knock on effects, think of it as a day. Paying someone £100 an hour, or £1,000 a day, the costs speak for themselves, and your priorities fast adjust on that basis.

Think Long Term

More than ever, we are being asked to do much more, with less time and money. Demands increase on all of us, and this is unlikely to change. So rather than the things needed for the next few months, look longer in time, to a year or two. Once you are stable, what’s next. Many software companies tend to charge by the module, although there are some that don’t. What will your budget look like then, and how much are these long term goals going to cost you? Always think long term.

Change

Don’t run screaming from this word. Instead embrace it. It’s inevitable, so think about why you wanted to look at open source in the first place. Do you have a specific requirement that is unlike other companies, that is quite specific to yours? Are you struggling to find exactly what you are looking for? Look for a software company who is happy to make changes to their software to meet your needs, without being thoroughly bespoke. There are companies that will make these type of changes for you for free, as you will be helping them sell their software to companies just like yours. Demand more, expect more, get more.

SME

Subject Matter Experts are always useful when looking at these. See if you have experience in your team at looking at this type of project. People join your teams sometimes with a wealth of knowledge from previous roles. Tap into their experiences, and see if you have a few SMEs to utilise. Then nominate at least 2 for the future, even if one of them is yourself. This way, your company is investing in the long term, and there is a plan in place for holidays, sickness, and so on.

No Open Source. Ever.

The best advice I could ever give to a customer is to ensure they don’t go with open source software for major business processes, such as help desks or service desks. It’s fine for smaller, in house tasks, but for larger business processes, steer clear! You will think back and remember this blog, and be glad that you took the advice!

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