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02 April 2009, 16:25

The Open Source Enterprise Trap

Do bought in open source enterprise services really deliver, or do companies find themselves just as locked in as when dealing with a proprietary vendor?

by Dj Walker-Morgan

Locked in Tux
When the Free Software and Open Source movements started, the question was always "How do you make money?". The answer was you give away the software and sell support and services. It is this simple business model which has been evolved by the current set of open source based Enterprise software vendors. Many vendors say their software is open sourced, but that isn't an assurance that as a customer you'll get the benefits of open source.

Let's talk about Example Corp, a hypothetical open source enterprise software vendor. Example Corp, at first glance, seems to be what it says on the tin. Our hypothetical company makes a software product by the name of Examples and has web sites where it sells subscriptions to Enterprise Examples, and where the community edition of Examples is made available. On the face of it, this looks like it should be fine. An enterprise can try out the community edition and if it works for them buy a subscription for support for Enterprise Examples.

The existence of a community edition though doesn't guarantee there's no trap. Let us consider ACME, a company wanting to move to open source in their enterprise. The IT department at ACME have found that Enterprise Examples has all the features they want and goes ahead and purchases a subscription. They install it and something goes wrong. The open source way should allow them to look at the code, fix the problem and put a new version in place. However they bought Enterprise Examples and the support subscription for that says "We only support the compiled versions we have supplied", so ACME get on the phone and get Example Corp to fix the problem and supply a new version which they will continue to support.

Sound familiar? Yes, it's the classic way of supplying proprietary software to a company. This is the "limited support lock in". By only supporting binary versions that they have supplied to enterprise customers, Example Corp have taken away the advantages of open source from the customer. What open source does for Example Corp is give them a cheaper way of developing their software by allowing people to take the community code and enhance it, and they get the benefits of those enhancements. The ACME folks don't get to benefit from this apart from being able to look at the public source code as part of the diagnostic process, but the source code isn't open source but more "visible source". This in itself is useful, but isn't the same as having the freedom of open source.

Next: Another scenario

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