Weighing The Hidden Costs Of Open Source
February 15, 2021 Alex Woodie
One of the perceived benefits of using open source software is cost. It’s often free to obtain, and users can get technical support au gratis through community supported websites. But what is often missing from that equation are hidden costs associated with running that software in production environments. An IDC report commissioned from IBM seeks to put a number to those costs.
In production environments, where the risk of a business interruption due to IT issues is high, companies must make the conscious decision to dedicate some of its staff’s time to supporting a given piece of open source software, according to the IDC’s report, titled The Business Value of IBM Open Source Support.
The IT professionals must know how the open source software works, and what to do if there is a configuration or operational problem, according to IDC authors Al Gillen and Matthew Marden. “These resources need to be available when the software is in use, and if it is supporting a 24×7 operation, it may be necessary to have technical expertise on call around the clock,” the pair write in the report.
Version control is another cost that must be factored into the equation. New releases of open source software are issued frequently – sometimes on a weekly basis, according to IDC – and this software must be vetted to ensure that the fixes and new features they contain are compatible with existing software (not to mention ensuring that it doesn’t contain viruses or other malware). Major upgrades are occasionally necessary to ensure the company can continue to benefit from the new features, and to ensure that it doesn’t break other software.
Another hidden cost highlighted by the IDC is the time that the in-house IT expert will dedicate to the community around the open source project. While not every IT professional contributes to the upkeep and development of open source software (and some companies may prefer their employees not spend any time on it), many IT pros do spend not insignificant amounts of time on these endeavors. If nobody ever contributed any time, the open source community would likely cease to exist.
The IDC highlighted several situations where self-support of software could be less than ideal. For example, a newly found security vulnerability in an update, or a configuration issue in the software that’s not easily resolved by onsite IT staff. These issues could potentially lead to downtime, and thus the company would seek to avoid such situations.
There are commercial support packages available for many major open source products and projects. Red Hat, which IBM acquired for $34 billion in 2019, is perhaps the best example of the commercial open source business plan in action.
Linux is one of the most widely used open source projects in the world, and is installed on the majority of the world’s new servers. Customers are free to use whatever Linux distribution suits their fancy: Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Fedora, Nitrux, Kodachi, Puppy Linux, and CentOS, among dozens of other (colorfully named) distros.
But for organizations that want the peace of mind of having a vendor providing professional support, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is a popular option. (And following Red Hat’s decision to cease supporting CentOS, to the chagrin of organizations that had been expecting that support through 2029, RHEL may become even more popular.)
What’s the value of commercial support for open source software, and specifically, IBM’s open source support package? IDC convened a panel of 11 folks from 11 large companies in the U.S., India, France, Spain, the UK, and Nigeria. The 10+ companies had an annual revenue of about $11 billion and about 38,000 employees (although the median figures were $1.6 billion and 12,250, respectively, which meant there were one or more really, really big firms driving the average up).
The companies in the panel told IDC there were multiple reasons for their decision to go with IBM open source support, “including having the confidence in using a trusted vendor with deep practical and institutional knowledge of the technologies and how to support their IT organizations,” IDC says.
The customers’ specific support needs varied with the types of types of software they were using. Some users stated they were afraid that the complexity of their systems would impact operating systems and databases, while others said they desired the confidence of having a vendor stand behind security and DevOps tools.
One customer with a support contract for an “application runtime/database” stated: “We tested a workload without strict policies and what we learned is that without the policies associated with paid support from IBM, the project was not well-managed, and the housekeeping wasn’t done. A vendor’s support team can keep your house in order . . . IBM helps provide that structure,” according to the report.
IDC calculated that IBM’s support offering provided “IT staff productivity” benefits to the tune of $1.6 million per year, while risk mitigation and business productivity and IT infrastructure cost reductions amounted to around $200,000 each. When it added it all up, IDC found that the average IBM customer realized an annual benefit of $2.08 million per organization.
For IBM i shops considering adopting open source software, the availability of IBM’s open source support program should give them peace of mind.
“We stared back in 2006 by putting PHP onto the IBM i platform. We did that specifically because clients were telling us they needed it,” Alison Butterill, the IBM i product offering manager for IBM, said during the recent IBM i Marketplace webinar hosted by HelpSystems.
The numbers have dramatically increased since then. “We went from one language to 350-plus environments in open source,” she said. “On top of that we worked with the support team and now have a support offering for open source environments on IBM i.”
“That’s the biggest push that we have for getting adoption up on open source,” she continued. “Many clients were interested but without a support operation, they couldn’t pass company audits. Now having a support contract for those open source languages and open source environments, they can get the benefits of open source and they can have a support contract to back it up.”
You can download the IDC report here.