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July 17, 2013 View Original Article

Open Source vs. Proprietary Software: There is No Clear Winner

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Everyone loves the promise of Open Source Software (OSS). It’s free (or almost free); it’s built by passionate communities of developers; you can “look under the hood”; and there’s no vendor lock-in. Add to that, that the rate of innovation is supposed to be faster with OSS — why would anyone choose to work with anything else? 

After talking with Tom Wentworth, Chief Marketing Officer of Acquia, "the Drupal Company,” I asked myself this question over and over again. After all, he revealed that the Drupal Community has built more than 20,000 modules; the Drupal site says that the project has more than 27,000 developers and 650 distributions — pretty impressive, right? OSS is the only way to go, Wentworth said, though I’m not sure he used exactly those words.

He also spoke highly of Alfresco, an OSS Enterprise Content Management (ECM) Platform, that works well with Acquia’s “expertly curated” versions of Drupal. Wentworh made it sound like Open Source rules in the ECM world too.

Could it really be that the days of Proprietary Software in the Web CMS and Enterprise CMS Worlds are over (and that I somehow didn’t notice)?


OSS vs. Proprietary in ECM/IM - What The Analysts Say

Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for Enterprise Content Management lists EMC Documentum, Hyland Software, IBM, Microsoft and OpenText in the “Leaders" quadrant. They are all proprietary vendors. OSS Alfresco falls short of what the aforementioned vendors have to offer; it’s in the "visionaries" quadrant.

In its evaluation, Gartner says that while Alfresco’s OSS status won it some appeal a few years ago, that isn’t the case any more. “The notion of open source itself, however, is becoming less of a differentiator in the content management market,” says the report.

Other analysts pretty much concur with Gartner: Forrester lists EMC Documentum, IBM, OpenText and Oracle as leaders, with Microsoft Sharepoint making its way into the highest part of the wave. Ovum’s most recent report lists EMC, IBM and OpenText as leaders.

OSS vs. Proprietary Software - Whose Code is Better?

There’s only one source to go to when you talk about code quality: Coverity, a leader in software development testing. “OSS or Proprietary, which has the fewest problems?” I asked Zach Samocha, Coverity’s Senior Director Product Management.

It depends, he answered, referring to the results of Coverity’s Scan report which reveals that the quality of OSS vs. Proprietary barely differs (defect densities are .69 vs. .68 respectively). Factor in the number of lines of code and, in general, when the number exceeds 1 million, proprietary rules. (To figure out lines of code in an OSS project , go to ohloh.net.) Alfresco, according to the site, has 2.06 million lines of code. Drupal, theopen source CMS platform, has 970,000.

I asked Samocha why OSS quality drops when the number of lines of code increases. “In a big project, you can’t make the assumption that developer talent is enough. You need to have tools in place, you need infrastructure, machines — not all OSS projects have the budget,” he said.

While I don’t know what commercial OSS vendor budgets look like, I will say this: the fact that Alfresco is both OSS and a for-profit company, and that Drupal is supported by for-profit entities like Acquia, there is likely to be money available. However, these services aren’t free; so what one might assume to be “free” or inexpensive because it’s OSS might cost more than expected.

OSS vs. Proprietary In Web Content Management - What the Analysts Say

Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for WCM leaders lists Oracle, Adobe, SDL, Sitecore and Ektron. They all create and sell proprietary WCM software. It doesn’t seem likely that they’ll be displaced by other vendors, proprietary or OSS, anytime soon.

As Barb Mosher said when she reported on the Leaders late last year, “the game (in WCM) is still the same and the established players have all the equipment necessary to play it.”

It is worth noting though that Acquia made it into Gartner’s Visionaries Quadrant for the first time this year.

As in the ECM space, Forrester and Ovum’s picks for WCM are similar.

When it comes to quality of code in Drupal , the number of lines falls within Coverity’s sweet spot. But the statistics on Drupal.org are daunting. 20,000 modules, you have to ask, how good could they all be? 5,185 issue comments in one week, how manageable is that? Acquia would no doubt tell you that its “careful curation” solves the problem.

Surprise! Proprietary Vendors Like OSS Too

It’s near impossible to find someone who will deny OSS is hot. In markets like Big Data, it’s rare to find an offering that isn’t, or doesn’t work with Apache Hadoop, MongoDB and Cassandra.  And proprietary vendors like SAP, Teradata and Oracle use Hadoop distros in their offerings. There’s also WordPress to consider — it’s popular, free and Open Source. 

I mention this to make it clear that OSS is present in most Enterprises and in many consumers’ lives. Not only do Enterprise execs acknowledge, and often use, OSS, employees of proprietary software companies do too.

The Power of Community

OpenText Chief Marketing Officer Kevin Cochrane has spent a good part of his career working for OSS vendors; he was the VP of Product Management at Alfresco and the CMO at Day Software (now part of Adobe).

Cochrane says that OSS’s main attraction isn’t that it’s free or low cost.

The true value in open source is the open, collaborative community of like-minded professionals who come together to crowd-source ideas and build great things. That the source code is freely available is simply a vector for promoting community and community-based development. Forums, wikis and other social software are similar vectors to promote community and community-based development. ”

His thinking actually resonates with Drupal’s tagline, "Come for the Open Source, stay for the Community.”

Proprietary software vendors could say, “Come for great software, stay for the community.”

This certainly is happening with Sharepoint. In 2012, Microsoft hosted “SharePoint Saturdays” in more than 43 cities worldwide. Not only that, but Google “love SharePoint,” and you’ll get 430,000 results. Among them, images of t-shirts, teddy bears, coffee mugs and even a few tattoos emblazoned with the phrase “I ♥ SharePoint.”

Community leader “Sharepoint Wendy” a.k.a. Wendy Neal, says that the Sharepoint community is growing daily. She points out that two recent sites, SPYam, a Yammer network for the SharePoint Community, just hit the 3,000 member mark and that enthusiast site SharePoint-Community.net, is near 3,000 members and it’s only 5 months old.

As Analysts Suggest, OSS ECM Software May Have Its Limits

If my question was, “All things being equal, would you rather go with a proprietary or OSS vendor?” I suspect that OSS might win.

But “All Things” aren’t equal say proprietary vendors.

Ken Burns, Hyland’s competitive intelligence specialist, gives three reasons:

First, the proprietary systems of process-centric ECM vendors have been battle-tested in production for several years. During that time, a tremendous amount of process logic and industry-specific domain expertise has been incorporated into the software. That domain knowledge has also been documented and institutionalized for use by the vendor’s professional services, technical support and training teams. That domain expertise has not been incorporated to the same extent into Open Source systems or the community of developers that support them.

Second, the idea of free software is negated by the amount of implementation time and ongoing administrative overhead required to customize Open Source systems to do what proprietary systems can do out-of-the-box.

Three, process-centric ECM vendors with proprietary products help customers manage vital information, and ensure the ongoing performance of mission-critical processes. The service levels provided by their technical support programs are far better equipped than OSS developer communities to deliver pro-active, around-the-clock support with the degree of urgency expected by organizations with the most demanding requirements.

Cochrane says that OpenText as a commercial software company has a distinct advantage.

We can take control and responsibility for building and certifying that hard core infrastructure. We can give a safe, secure, and compliant platform to our community so that they can focus their initiative on what's most meaningful to them: unleashing the power of information to transform line of business functions to gain faster time to innovation, faster time to market, faster time to revenue, faster time to customer success.”

Are Proprietary + OSS Vendors All That Different?

Assuming that both OSS and Proprietary vendors/projects are well-funded and have solid communities behind them, why is one better than the other? The classic Open Source argument is that the “community” can build a better “product” than a group of “employee” engineers within a single enterprise.

Yet, if you look at the number of code committers at Alfresco, for example, over the last seven days, there are 31, which probably isn’t a larger number than you’d find at OpenText, Microsoft, IBM or EMC (since they are not Open Source, we can’t see the numbers like we can for Alfresco). Drupal lists 62 contributors in the last three days.

Cochrane says that much of what proprietary vendors do is “not that much different from what other commercial 'open source' companies do." He points out that the hard infrastructure bits are really developed by more closely guarded, "closed" communities of developers, with the broader community participating in extensions and tweaks to individual applications or components built atop a solid platform.

Should Risk Be Factored In?

The established players in the ECM and Web CMS markets are, well, established. They are well-funded, their products work and they have long, solid track records of supporting their customers.

The OSS vendors in these markets are typically younger. While youth certainly has its advantages, “having withstood the test of time” isn’t one of them.

Though Enterprises aren’t anywhere nearly as averse toward implementing cutting-edge technologies as they were a decade ago (they can’t afford to be in the age of Big Data, Social and Mobile), risk remains a consideration. When TechCrunchTV interviewed Acquia boss Tom Erickson late last year, they commented on how few Open Source companies successfully go public and make it to profitability. And since Enterprise Software is hardly plug’n’play, this has to be factored in.

Why Does WordPress Have Competitors?

If there’s one OSS that both IT and user communities are familiar with, it’s WordPress, the popular, 100% free blogging tool. Those who pay for WordPress services know exactly what they are paying for —hosting, upgrades, themes and so on ….

Few of us hear many complaints. Sure, you can’t always get support the second you need it; after all, the community may not be sitting around waiting to hear your cry. But most people are ok with that, they’re not in a rush; if they are, they buy third party help.

Still, WordPress has competitors who charge money and win business. I asked Squarespace founder and CEO Anthony Casalena why he thinks his company is commercially viable. Here’s what he said:

Squarespace exists to solve the problem of publishing as best we possibly can, and we think the way we solve it is worth what we charge. Developers and consumers opt into using free software primarily because of perceived low cost and high control. In reality, the maintenance required to host, protect, upgrade, and support a free software package is not zero, and even hosted free solutions eventually have to become businesses to continue to operate. In terms of control — any platform you select for your data, free or not, means committing to a particular data format. Squarespace provides easily accessible full data exports, structured data queryable from any public URL, and a flexible developer platform giving power users full code control.

We think it's important for our clients to quickly get a beautiful, well-supported site up and running, and our business depends on making that a reality at a very low price."

And, yes, this may sound like a Squarespace commercial, but Casalena makes the case for paying for proprietary software quite well.

At the end of the day, the question to ask isn’t Open Source vs. Proprietary OR Free vs. Price, but what problem do I have? What solution solves it best? What kind of support will I need over the long-haul and is it readily available at a reasonable price? What’s my comfort with risk?

After all, “free" can be costly and spending lots of money won't necessarily solve your problem.