10 things traditional software customers want to know about open source

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What questions come up most frequently when I engage with customers about open source? The answers should be important to you whether you produce or use traditional or open source software.

I talk to many customers who have installed what I’ll call “traditional” or “commercial” software but what some people call “closed” or “proprietary” software. The most savvy customers understand that most traditional software contains a lot of open source software, and you need to think about open source not just at the application but also at the library level. These customers usually have enterprise installations and either run or outsource huge data centers, have multiple hardware and software platforms, and care a lot about quality of service, service level agreements, maintenance, support, and cost.

I listed cost last, but many CFOs and CIOs are forcing this to be the first issue. This is not new, of course, as traditional software companies have long had to negotiate deals with customers considering competitive alternatives. Open source is entering into the picture because of the low (or lower) acquisition cost.

While I have a standard set of slides I use to drive the conversations around open source, I love it when the presentations become discussions and many questions get asked. I pose a lot of them myself as I want to understand what the customers already know about open source, how they are using it, how it compares to other software, what is motivating them to use it, and how they selected the open source or traditional software they end up deploying.

I’ve addressed many of these issues in the previous blog entries listed at the bottom of this post.

Let me now approach this from a different angle and tell you some of the questions customers ask me about open source. Flavors of many of these questions are and have been appropriate for traditional software.

  1. Of the hundreds of thousands of open source projects, how do I tell which are the good or bad ones?
  2. What’s the best Linux distribution for the desktop? for the server? for the cloud?
  3. Which open source projects have support and maintenance that’s at least as good as traditional software vendors?
  4. I need a 5 to 10 year plan for installing enterprise software. Which open source projects and companies can I count on to GUARANTEE support for the software for that long?
  5. Does IBM endorse all open source projects and ensure that its software is completely compatible with every open source project? (No, but when those open source projects use open standards, interoperability is easier.)
  6. How do I avoid making a really bad, possibly job-ending, mistake when moving to open source software?
  7. What might those types of job-ending mistakes be?
  8. Will I have legal or license problems if I use open source projects?
  9. Can you give a feature-by-feature comparison of your software with several open source alternatives, including support for standards and ease of integration with other enterprise software?
  10. I just heard about a squabble regarding such-and-such in the open source community. Is it serious, how do I explain it to my boss, and why can’t they all get along?

I try to avoid generalities and never say “all open source software” does this, or “all open source companies” do that. I recommend that you have particular open source or traditional software in mind as you think about the answers to these questions.


The Whole Series