Open Source IT vs. Commercial IT – What’s your call?

04 Feb

Open source cloud, applications, IT, data centers, servers, storage, networking, people, wow, who would have thunk it. All kidding aside, there really are options to buy from the road less traveled in virtually every category of IT product.  The question is should you pursue a “crowd sourced” solution versus using a service or buying a packaged solution?

Which Path to Take, as There is a Certain Appeal to Both?

With commercial solutions you have a single vendor/group that is supporting the on-going development of your solution. They are also providing some level of comfort that what you’re buying will see regular quality, performance and supportability improvements in some predictable manner.

Open source is seductive because you are seemingly working outside the boundaries among other perceived and real benefits. But, beyond the notion of what open source is or isn’t there are a significant number of considerations to make before you make a buy/build decision.

Keep in mind that many of the risks and benefits of either approach are more a factor of how you plan to “own” the strategy than they are a factor of initial cost or business benefit, with some exceptions.

The Risks and Rewards of your Technology Adoption Strategy

Strategically Speaking

Assuming you have made the decision that open source is the winner, then the effort should include the following requirements;

  1. Business benefit of the change – How will open source positively impact future enterprise objectives?
  2. Business risk assumptions – How will you manage the risks? (How are you measuring the risk?)
  3. Organizational alignment – What is your organization lacking in the way of skills, internal alignment, and business integration?
    1. The “ownership” strategy of your technology choice
    2. Roles & responsibilities
    3. Staff training and recruiting
    4. Architectural decisions and assumed benefits
    5. Lifecycle planning
    6. On-going adoption efforts
    7. Partner development (augmenting the team and bringing external partners on board with complementary solutions)
  4. Lastly, your job isn’t the development of new applications, infrastructure or data centers, your role specifically is to deliver business benefit through the appropriate use of IT solutions. If the appropriate solution is something you can easily buy as a service then you should make that a serious consideration.

Five Points of Consideration when Buying Commercial IT Solutions vs. Open Source:

  1. Why are you buying?
    1. This is the single most important question. You need to have an honest answer as to why you need to buy at all versus using a service.
    2. Even if you’re getting software or services for free you’re still “buying”. Don’t discount the investment in time and effort and potential lost opportunity of an ill-conceived and poorly justified project, because you got it for “free”.
  2. What is your internal skill set?
    1. Are you deeply invested in skill sets that lend themselves to the tried and true?
    2. How much are you investing in new software or hardware? Does the long term growth and development of the solution mean a larger upfront investment in learning isn’t as hard to swallow? Then maybe open source could be worth a look.
  3. What’s your appetite for risk?
    1. As the old saying goes, no one ever got fired for buying (IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, VMware, etc).
    2. There are many assumptions about where risk comes from. Unfortunately, most of us in IT don’t weigh risk correctly. All too often we weigh risk in a way that allows us to justify our decisions or to maintain a level of comfort as it relates to our (un)willingness to change.
  4. What’s the availability of local support or technology ecosystems?
    1. If you’re not in a major metro area, then getting a solution with greater out of the box support from a big name(s) might be a better fit.
    2. Any small project using open source may not seem like it needs a village. However, as this small project propagates into an Agile or Fluid IT environment, you’ll begin to accept the critical importance of the larger ecosystem of support.
  5. How important is it to get going quickly versus long term ownership flexibility?
    1.  How does this new solution add or subtract to/from the greater architecture of your infrastructure environment

i.      Is this an opportunity to start a small green field effort for the infrastructure future you’d like to have?

ii.      Does your leadership share a greater vision for a complete redo of your infrastructure and application environments?

  1. It’s difficult to effectively measure the ROI of near term access to a new capability vs. long term impact of making a less than best choice of solutions. When considering a new solution, the long term “ownership” (integration, support costs, vendor strength, fit with larger enterprise architecture goals, etc.)  is critical. But all of those considerations could potentially be thrown to the wind if you’ve created a truly Agile/Fluid IT design model. With the correct approach you can remove many of the assumed risks we’ve learned from legacy environments. By leveraging partners and solutions that are better suited for rapid test/fail/test/toss/test/implement project styles you avoid the build and take root mentality.

The 5 bullets above aren’t comprehensive and they assume the reader has a strong grasp of IT project related issues and considerations.

Vested interests

We all have vested interests relative to our historical comfort zones and “known” ability to deliver. The real question for you is “does doing it the same old way hurt your business”? Designing your IT group of the future includes, people, process, technology, understanding of the business and business integration of IT staff. Without the correct application of each of the preceding requirements it doesn’t matter what approach you take.

In the End

The real decision around what type of IT solution you own, lease, borrow, or share should have a direct correlation to increasing your ability to deliver IT quickly, efficiently and cost effectively to your customers. IT should be leading the charge of bringing new innovation and opportunity through IT solutions to the business, not waiting for the business to come asking for something. If the business is asking for it, you’re already too late.

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