Sometimes Free is Expensive

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A friend asked me what I thought of the Xen hypervisor this week, and I gave him my opinion of it. Now I will not get into my friend’s business or my opinion of Xen here. One is another person’s private business that he allowed me to be privy to, and the other is a matter of my personal taste influenced by my experiences. What I will share with you today is that one of the reasons that Xen was being considered in this situation was that it is “free”.

Free in the sense that you can download and install Xen without having to pay for a license or purchase any software whatsoever. That is great! I love free software that works, but that does not mean that Xen is cheap. It does not mean that Xen is inexpensive. It simply means that the initial price is $0, and that the total cost of ownership has yet to be calculated.

Free software partially addresses one, maybe two, of three important factors when it comes to designing IT solutions for businesses. These three factors are:

  • The initial price.
  • Production quality.
  • Speed to market.

Now your initial price is what free software partially addresses. A free software solution (or a free service, or product, or anything that you can acquire and use for free) lowers the barrier for a particular solution to be implemented, but it does not guarantee that the solution will be free of all costs. You still need to administer the system, support the system, accommodate any limitations that the system may have, and have an understanding of what the cost may be to migrate off of the system at some point if it can no longer match your company’s needs. All of these factors, and many more, influence the total cost of ownership for the solution.

Next we need to consider production quality. Here is another area where a free software solution may do well. Just because something is free does not mean it is of poor quality (the reverse is also true), but free products do tend to lag behind in terms of the latest features offered by their commercial counterparts. Free products are often volunteer driven, or at the very least do no have the deepest of pockets with which to compete, so while free software projects often have their best features quickly absorbed into or imitated by the commercial market the best features in a commercial product offering takes time to make its way into a free solution. This impacts the quality of the final product, because all other things being equal the product with a greater number of desired features is the higher quality product. So even free products of incredibly high quality may lose to commercial products that have more features.

And do not get me started on how advertising and marketing campaigns make the evaluation of various solutions even more difficult to do accurately…

Finally we have the time to market factor, or simply put how long it will take to get the solution positioned so that your customers can actually start using it so that you can start collecting revenues. In this aspect commercial solutions tend to have a huge advantage. Distributors, partner programs, supply chains, etc. are leveraged to get the product on the shelves (or into the datacenter) as quickly as possible. Free software solutions often do not arrive to the market in a timely manner unless the solution happens to be an innovative first, in which case the unique features are at risk of being absorbed or imitated into a commercial offering as previously mentioned.

But even if the free software solution is readily available to use that does not mean that your business can use it to bring another product or service to market quickly. Does the free software solution need to be customized? Is it popular enough that a market of consultants has developed around it to provide those customization services? Are those consultants numerous enough that you can hire one of them right now and they can start work on the solution ASAP? A commercial product often has this expertise in place and readily available, while a volunteer-driven free solution probably does not. This also applies beyond just consulting to the talent needed to install, operate, and maintain the solution.

Do you use a different set of criteria when investigating an expensive software solution that you will need to pay for? The answer is no. Software solutions that you pay for still need to be evaluated based upon the initial price, the quality, and the time in which they can be brought to market. If a free software solution is of high quality and meets all of your needs to take a product to market with, then the commercial solution that is equal in all other aspects except price should not be used. Your business should save that money and use the free solution instead.

As an IT professional you have to understand that a solution being “free” or “expensive” is often a red herring to deciding whether or not that solution should be used. Instead you need to focus on quantifying how a solution impacts your customers and influences your business overall. Saving some money upfront does not equate to a solution being free in the final stages of product and service delivery. Treat price as a just one of several criteria to evaluate, and know at what point a solution becomes less profitable to use than a competing solution (or more importantly unprofitable to use altogether).

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