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It’s hard not to find the images attractive: Against the bastions of corporate computing, idealistic young software engineers fight for access to free software and an open, benevolent technology community. But before developers and independent software vendors (ISVs) get swept up by altruism and stake their business to development of solutions on open source code, it’s worth considering: Can you take free software to the bank?

Solution developers such as eOptimize increasingly find themselves faced with pressure — from within and without — to develop solutions on open source platforms such as Linux as the open source movement receives media play and customers inevitably find the promise of “free” software irresistible.

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I’ve listened to the arguments for open source computing, and I’ve discussed the pros and cons of open source versus commercial code with other developers and our company’s technical staff. But aside from the warm and fuzzy appeal of working on communally based software, does solution development on an open source platform make business sense for either an ISV or its customers?

At eOptimize, we have decided to continue to develop our solutions on commercial code from Microsoft Corp. Ultimately, the technical strength of each platform was not the only factor in our decision. While solution development on Microsoft’s code has always met our technical needs and the expectations of our customers, our relationship with Microsoft as a code vendor also has also delivered great business benefits to eOptimize.

There are three questions that small software developers should consider as they consider whether to incorporate open source platforms into their business.

This article has been updated as a counter-point to David Lai’s column, For ISVs: Time to be Picky.

Three things to consider

Three things to consider

1. After moving to open source code, will you be on your own for marketing, promotions and business planning?

Working closely with an active technology partner creates great business benefit for small, independent solution providers. Small companies often don’t have much of a budget for marketing or promotions. However, established technology vendors offer partner marketing, business planning and promotional initiatives that educate the public and create demand by communicating a larger technology vision. Smaller companies can piggyback on these efforts to strengthen their position in their own markets. These kinds of well-planned, shared initiatives are difficult to imagine in the decentralized world of open source software.

2. Where will open source platforms be in five years? How will you plan your technology infrastructure and products out into the future?

Participation in a cohesive, well-articulated technology plan is of great strategic importance to an ISV or solution developer. A company such as Microsoft has an overarching road map for each of its component systems and its entire technology stack. An evolution plan is in place that indicates where the technology will be in five years. This allows a small company to make future commitment. We plan our product development strategies five years out, knowing that when we get there, the mission-critical technology infrastructure will be waiting for us.

3. What is the real cost of a “free” platform? Will customers find open source solutions to be interoperable and expandable without requiring expensive consulting and service fees?

Open source advocates have been very successful in creating the impression that its code represents a “free” software option. And that’s a very strong position to plant in people’s minds. Once established, it’s hard to dislodge the expectation that software should cost nothing. However, when a developer uses open source code to develop solutions, customers often experience sticker shock when they discover its real cost.

The true expense of open source

The true expense of open source

The true expense of open source software comes with the consultants and service providers who implement solutions. When services are factored into the total cost of ownership, the actual costs may be much more than your customers expect. Whenever services are a substantial component of a technology investment, final costs are often difficult to predict and prone to bloat.

Further, a custom open source solution often isn’t warranted to interoperate easily with other systems, may involve increased server management costs, and can include hidden training costs when employees are asked to use unfamiliar tools. Interoperability is a critical business consideration, in part because it makes both the cost of development and cost to our customers much more predictable. Interoperability also gives small companies such as eOptimize the means to move on new opportunities incredibly fast while creating more value for our customers.

There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Open Source software may seem free, but it doesn’t come without cost. Having a strong partnership with a commercial code vendor gives a small company tremendous advantages when it comes to planning new products, controlling costs, marketing products and other business initiatives that are necessary for success. When it comes time to evaluate technology platforms, I believe that these business considerations should be weighed as carefully as the technical criteria that go into your solutions. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions; after all, it’s your business.

Barry Baker is the chief operating officer and chief technology officer at eOptimize Inc., developers of “smart” scheduling tools. eOptimize is a Microsoft Certified Partner and a member of the Microsoft Exchange Partner Beta Program.