Is open-source right for you?

I was asked recently to quote installing a 5-user open-source ERP system. Unfortunately, as with anything technical and complicated, “it depends”. Open-source software provides an incredible opportunity, but both client and vendor business models are still not familiar to most people outside the open-source community, who largely perceive open-source software as simply a less expensive alternative to traditional proprietary software.

Try asking yourself these questions:

  • Are you familiar with open-source software, its goals and philosophies, and licenses, business models, and support channels?
  • Is there a strategic benefit for using open-source software in your enterprise? Does using open-source software enhance your competitive position? Will you be “doing things” that are impossible otherwise, and will it be core to your business model?
  • Have you yourself installed the demo version, figured out the basics of how to use it, and have demonstrated it to anyone else?
  • Do you understand the technology involved? E.g. ERP, PLM, the internet, IoT, cloud hosting, change management, etc.
  • Do you understand the software development process? Change management? Agile? DevOps? Bug tracking? Workflow and data pipelines?
  • Is your finance person tech-savvy?
  • Do you have internal IT group, or do you already have a relationship with an IT services provider, or hosting provider?
  • Will you be configuring the software yourself?

You should have many more “yes” answers than “no” answers if open-source is right for you. More “no” than “yes” either means you have more boot-strapping to do, or you should buy a commercial product or service (which may possibly use open-source software behind the curtain).

To simply install open-source software on a server at a hosting provider generally costs practically nothing, typically at worst a couple hours for someone qualified. Add to that operating hosting costs, internal or external. The real costs are learning how to configure and use the software for your unique business, how to live with, work-around or develop the missing features (that you and least one other person insist are essential <wink>), customizing reports, etc.

As with any software, it’s important to uncover areas of friction as soon as possible. Finding out late that meeting a hard requirement will be extremely disruptive does no one any good. Prototype your basic business workflows and get quick validation by pretending you are various users performing their typical work tasks. However, it’s the confusing tasks, the ones “that depend”, or the ones that “we don’t need to deal with that now” that will likely determine in the end whether there’s a good fit or not, and also the implementation effort that will be needed. You may not need solutions for what you find, but you do need to know where you stand.

Fundamentally no one else can do this for you, because no one else understands your business like you do. The alternative is to have a proxy, which can turn the project into a 6-month to 18-month effort, with multiple people, requirements gathering, competitive product research, shortlist, deep-dive prototyping critical workflows with each shortlisted product, etc., which often is then beyond the ability of an SME to support.

 

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