The strength of the open source approach is the community that develops around a solution. Open source proponents also cite advantages, such as more rapid bug fixes, more brain and person power adding functionality, and its low cost (in many cases it's free). While these are just some of the advantages among many, there's also a downside to open source.
For pure open source solutions, the biggest disadvantage is managing the software itself. Users must download distributions, compile code, download fixes and updates and keep track of software distributions. Although there is flexibility in this environment and techies find themselves in their element with open source, it isn't for everyone.
Open source management tools available in levels of "free"
However, the new breed of open source management suite vendors is hoping to accomplish what vendors like Red Hat did for Linux. One of the services they offer is to distribute product releases, much like the commercial management vendors provide. This removes one of the barriers to broader adoption of open source solutions. But that's not all that they're providing.
All of the open source management suite vendors offer a free, open source version of their solution, as well as a user community. In addition, all of them also offer for-fee services and/or make product enhancements available for purchase. Most of the vendors offer multiple levels of subscription-based support and services – which seems to be the prevalent business model for most of these vendors.
Apart from these basic characteristics that all open source suite solutions share, there is wide variation in the solution offerings themselves. Some vendors provide all of their code as free, open source distributions, while others offer a free version of their software, and product enhancements for a fee.
Test drive distribution packages
Potential users should be aware that there is a wide variety of capabilities and approaches from each of the vendors. One solution employs existing, widely-used open source management tools for which they have developed a software framework to integrate their products as an open source suite. They also handle the distribution of the various open source products, as well as their own software.
On the other end of the spectrum, some open source suites transitioned from commercial management tools and have changed their business model to open source solutions. In one case, the software was previously sold as enterprise class management solutions, and is now offered as an open source solution, with additional enterprise-oriented features offered on a for-fee basis.
These are just two examples of the wide span of approaches that the open source management suite vendors are taking. So if you are interested in using one of these open source suites, you must compare carefully to ensure that you're getting what you thought you were getting.
The beauty of the open source model is the ability to download and try the free version of the software before making any investment. In fact, some of the vendors I spoke with are finding that young technical staff members are downloading and trying the open source management software. After they've determined that the software meets their needs, they demonstrate the solution to their managers. This is how some of these solutions are getting into enterprise accounts, as well as mid-sized companies.
Functionality, not price, should be determining factor
Although free software has a definite appeal, potential users should know what they are getting into before taking the plunge. Do not select a management tool based only on price – it must fit your needs and the demands of your company. If it's free but it isn't the right solution for you, you'll either pay for it in downtime, or by maintaining the management tool itself.
Users should seriously consider subscribing for support, especially if the management software is used in production environments. The subscription cost is already much less than you would have paid for license fees and support from commercially available software, so even though you pay for support, you're still ahead of the game.
As they say, you get what you pay for. Even without paying for a subscription, the "free" software will probably still cost your company money, in terms of time and effort required to install and support the software. And although the vendors have worked to reduce the "techi-ness" of their open source products, you should be aware that some of these solutions are not necessarily a good fit for organizations that don't have adequate technical expertise, such as small businesses.
So, are these open source management suites viable alternatives for IT organizations? They are, if the solution fits the needs of the IT organization, and if the IT organization has either the necessary resources to support the products and/or it subscribes to the right support option.
If you're interested in checking out some of these open source management solutions, here's a partial list to start with. GroundWork, Hyperic, Qlusters, and Zenoss are some of the management solutions that are out there. Check them out and let me know what you think about them, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This was first published in August 2007