Six questions to ask before you opt for open source software

It’s not uncommon for people to say to us that they don’t understand why they should pay for industry standard analytics products like SPSS or SAS when there are strong open source alternatives freely available such as R. Indeed the development of R has really transformed the analytics marketplace in many ways.

It’s tempting to make a comparison between R and commercial alternatives such as SPSS and SAS on price grounds alone. When you look at it that way it might seem as though there’s no contest. SPSS and SAS can both involve a significant investment whereas R is free.

However there are many more considerations than just the upfront cost. It’s not unusual for us to talk to clients who, lured by the prospect of saving money with open source, moved over to R only to find that they weren’t getting the returns that they wanted because they lacked the appropriate skills in house, or couldn’t get the level of support they needed, or found that their productivity levels dropped.

Of course open source software can have many benefits but there are also situations when it makes much more business sense to go for a proprietary product. In this blog post I outline some of the things you need to think about when deciding between open source analytics products and commercial alternatives.

  1. Will unskilled users be able to use it? Open source options tend to be geared more towards skilled, expert users. An example of this is the operating system Linux which has made great strides into the server market but hasn’t achieved the equivalent penetration in the desktop market. This is because it’s much harder for non-experts to use and its interface can’t match the much more user-friendly appearance of Windows or Mac OS X. Many people would still argue that Linux is technically superior to the Windows and Mac operating systems and indeed that may be true, but having a technically superior product is of little use if your staff don’t know how to use it. The drop in productivity caused by forcing your staff to use something they’re not familiar with can end up costing you much more than it would have cost to buy the more user-friendly commercial software to start with.
  2. Does the open source software offer the level of support you need? If the software is mission critical to your business then you may want a level of formal support that open source alternatives don’t provide. For open source software the support is generally provided in informal ways through forums or perhaps formal support is available through a separate third party. If you’re making occasional use of something at the fringes of your business then this may be sufficient. But if the software is central to your business and critical to your decision making then you’ll probably want support that’s more robust and reliable. Part of what you pay for when you buy commercial software is the support. With a commercial provider you can have the benefit of a defined service level agreement with guaranteed support available whenever you need it.
  3. Do warranties and liability indemnity matter? Some open source providers operate along very similar lines to commercial organisations here and do offer warranties and liability indemnity for their products, but this is by no means universal. If having the security that a warranty provides is important to you (or is required by your organisation’s procurement policies) then a commercial provider may be the only way to go.
  4. Do you need the security of a provider that will definitely stick around? Obviously there are no guarantees in life and commercial organisations can go out of business or stop developing or supporting their products too. If it’s important to you that your supplier is in it for the long term then it’s a question of weighing up the risks here. If you’re comparing a small open source project with a major commercial vendor you need to consider which is more likely to be a viable long term proposition.
  5. Have you considered the hidden costs of lost productivity and training? It’s a mistake to think that the cost of buying the software license is the only cost. When considered on that basis then obviously open source can look very attractive when compared to commercial alternatives. However, as already mentioned, open source products are often geared towards expert users. If you’ve got a community of expert users in your organisation then open source may be the way to go, but if you want non power users to be able to benefit then a commercial alternative may suit you better. Saving money on the cost of the software but then having to spend thousands on training and sucking up the associated cost of lost productivity can make it a false economy.
  6. Will you be able to recruit people who have the necessary skills? In many markets there are de facto software standards that you can reasonably expert most people to be able to use. For example, it would be very unusual to come across someone who didn’t know how to use Word or Excel these days. However many fewer people will already know how to use the open source alternatives. Similarly in the analytics field there are areas of analytics where particular products have become the market standard. Where that’s the case there’s a benefit in sticking with the standard – you’ll find it easier to recruit staff, your analysts will find it easier to communicate with each other and with their non-analytical counterparts, it may be easier to get your work published. All these might be important consideration.

I’m certainly not arguing that open source is a bad thing – there are many circumstances in which opting for open source might be exactly the right choice for your organisation. However it’s important that you make that decision taking into account the full range of relevant considerations rather than simply making it based on price.

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