Is Open Source Ecommerce Software Right for My Company?Remember the adage about something being too good to be true?

And how about the one about you get what you pay for?

While I am a firm believer in both of these admonitions, one cannot ignore the incredible value of the open source software that is available.  One just has to be discerning and judicious in the application of when it’s an appropriate solution and when it may not be.

What to Consider:

  • Open Source is done on a voluntary basis, often by a wide range of developers, and that writing software takes a LOT of time and energy.  While some projects have excellent oversight, others may not have the same level of professional involvement.  With any Open Source software you use, you need to be certain that the necessary documentation and quality assurance testing are indeed being done.
  • Open Source projects can also be a gateway to purchasing additional products. There are “free” versions of software out there that are intentionally “dumbed down” or written to entice you to upgrade to the advanced or enterprise edition. Make sure you know what the landscape looks like before you jump in.  In general, make sure you consider the total cost of ownership for any software solution.  Perhaps the initial cost is far lower, but what about training? What happens if you invest in a piece of software through, typically, an individual or small group in your company who spend countless hours learning it so that they can add the features they want and then the person leaves?  Who do you turn to for maintenance?
  • Applicability of fit. Applicability of fit is probably my #1 criterion when assessing whether to use Open Source software or not.  If the open source option provides 90% of the functionality you need, there’s an active community enhancing the software, and it’s a common enough product that you can hire resources to modify it if needed, then it would seem to be a pretty compelling solution.  If, however, the software provides only 50% of the functionality you want and the intent is that your internal staff will augment it – do the math and make sure you want to take on that risk.  Remember to ask yourself, “What is my core business? Could my resources be better utilized on my core business rather than customizing Open Source software?” Are you really in (or do you want to be in) the business of being a software development shop?

Keep a Level Head

Don’t make whether or not to choose Open Source ecommerce software a religious debate.  There are a lot of heated debates about open source vs. big business (a.k.a. Microsoft) products out there.  When determining which product to use, take the emotion out of the decision. Look at the overall cost of ownership over time, the features, and the quality of the product and let them stand on their own merits.

Know Where You’re Headed

Make sure to understand the overall vision of the product you are considering as best you can before you jump in– if it is a small, well-defined piece of functionality, the risk of using Open Source is dramatically lowered.  However, if you are looking at an open source ERP system, be very careful.  The larger the system, the more important the product’s vision is to your success and strategic, consistent vision often runs counter to an Open Source project. In Open Source, the community decides the direction, not a product manager with a clear outcome in mind.

Moving Forward With Open Source Software

If you do choose pursue an Open Source solution, do not modify its core code.  Modifying core code can become “Pandora’s Box” with ramifications you didn’t intend. Instead, try to extend the code whenever you can.  With commercial software you cannot touch the core code, keeping you safe from inexplicably breaking the code and functionality. This “locked” core code also facilitates upgrades and patches.  With open source, as soon as you start mucking with the engine, you are opening yourself up to a lot of work as patches and upgrades become available.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, consider Open Source software as one of your valid options.  Compare it side-by-side with the commercial solutions you may be considering on upgrades, applicability to task and overall cost of ownership. Resist the urge to make a decision based solely on the initial cash outlay.

Remember, “It’s more important to make the decision right than to make the right decision.”  What this means is that once you’ve made a well-informed decision, stand behind it, and through your own actions, make it successful.  It is more important to invest in a decision’s success than in constantly worrying about having made the wrong decision.

Want to learn more about how ecommerce can revolutionize the way you do business? View the on-demand webinar, Ecommerce Best Practices for B2B and B2C today!

Tom Frishberg, CIOTom Frishberg is Chief Information Officer at Insite Software. He can be reached at tfrishberg@insitesoft.com.