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  • 25 January 2011 09:47

Mitigating the risks of non-proprietary software in the enterprise

Beware the downside to non-proprietary solutions

By Cameron Ackbury, General Manager Asia Pacific, Mindjet

In tough economic times, businesses often seek to reduce human resource and infrastructure costs. The Savvy businesses that leverage the downturn as a time to focus on building the systems to automate processes will create competitive advantages in times of growth. Those businesses often consider products that are either free or open source (non-proprietary) as a means of lowering costs and boosting productivity.

From a user’s perspective, the difference between open source and free software is minimal: Open source delivers access to the source code enabling developers to modify programs to suit specific business processes without paying royalties or fees, while free software is, of course, delivered at zero price.

At first glance, delivering non-proprietary products for general use is a noble cause. Some non-proprietary applications (Linux, SQL Server etc) bring immediate benefits to an organisation because they require no customisation. Yet there’s a downside. Businesses that are subject to audit scrutiny or external certifications should take into consideration the following factors when evaluating non-proprietary applications:

• Quality Control: Open source quality is as good as the developers who work on the product. While it is true that the code is open to scrutiny, there may be no formal quality control process. Version control may be non-existent or minimal, at best.

• Security issues: Malicious hackers pride themselves on their ability to compromise software applications, so software patches need to be continuously updated and applied to non-proprietary applications. These patches may need to be applied, and even developed, by in-house experts or outsourced to third party vendors. Even after the software patch is applied, it needs to pass through quality control to ensure that the fix is compatible with other elements of the software.

• Documentation: Programmers and developers typically write the documentation for non-proprietary software. As a result, the language is typically code-speak geared and tailored to the development community. Business users often will receive no benefit from the documentation, because training may not be available, the users may be required to write their own training manuals.

• Ability to innovate: Product management teams interview clients to write product specification sheets that solve real business pains. In general, developers write features and functions that are nice to have or are ‘cool’ features. It is hard to imagine how developers can write language that solves business pains, let alone understand future requirements.

• Increased reliance on IT: The benefit of open source is that it can be designed and coded to fit business processes. The challenge emerges when those business processes change. Many business owners do not want the flexibility to adapt an application without consulting IT, so payroll costs increase as the number of developers needed to maintain these applications increases.

• Hidden support costs: As mentioned earlier, building systems to automate processes creates competitive advantages in times of growth. The non-proprietary systems may require increased demands on the IT department’s ability to support the application, thus eliminating the value of an automated process.

• Non-existent best practices: Software developers write code based on product specifications. Non-proprietary software packages may not have product managers who translate best practices within business processes into software specifications. As a result, there is a risk of omitting best practices within the application.

• Lack of Customer Support: Even the best IT departments need a central contact point for issues with software applications. As non-proprietary applications are developed by a community of technical resources, there is no central person to help with issues. The community of developers may or may not be open to direct contact from those using their applications, although some issues may be solved through developer forums or discussion groups. Third party organisations may also charge a premium on non-mainstream applications that require additional research effort. Finally, reaching an expert may be near impossible outside normal business hours.

• Distraction from your Core Business: As greater attention is focused on configuring and customising non-proprietary applications, businesses can be distracted from their core business models. Developing the systems to automate processes that create competitive advantages in times of growth should support the core business model.

• Licensing Minefield: Most non-proprietary software enables developers to configure and customise the application to meet specific business requirements. Often, developers build new applications directly into the software, infringing patent agreements. According to Blane Warrene, Navigating Open Source Licensing (, “This possibility, coupled with concern over evolving intellectual property (IP) issues and liability, has become a recipe for developer confusion, especially since a broad list of different open source licenses exists. The process for choosing a licence, reviewing code and launching a product without liability concerns becomes more vexing as the open source atmosphere expands.”

So businesses who are considering using non proprietary software are advised to follow this rule of thumb: if a non-proprietary application requires customisation or configuration, the less likely it is that this application will support the company objective of building systems to automate processes that create competitive advantages in times of growth. ( a bit of a run on sentence)

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