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How to avoid the hidden costs of open source

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Stephan Fabel, director of products at Ubuntu developer, Canonical, understands that there can often be some hidden costs involved when it comes to open source. Thankfully, he’s found a way to avoid those hidden costs. 

Innovation is happening faster than ever before and, according to Deloitte, it’s among the top five priorities for 96% of companies. In such a dynamic marketplace, businesses are seeking ways to rapidly innovate, without the heavy costs that are often associated with this. For this reason, they are turning to open source. Open source gives businesses access to the latest innovations with potentially minimal upfront investment. 

In fact, the Linux Foundation published a survey last year which found that 53% of companies have, or plan to have an open source programme. When this group was further questioned about why they intended to implement an open source strategy, 40% said that they believed it would lower licensing fees and support costs. 

With open source adoption expected to explode over the next year, it’s no surprise that tech giants such as Microsoft and Facebook are investing heavily in it. In 2016, Facebook had 15,682 developers contributing to GitHub – a figure which is only growing. While these companies are popularising open source with businesses, there are many open source providers who are still struggling to navigate the enterprise landscape. Redis Labs, for instance, was forced to adopt an unpopular licensing scheme for its open software as a result of revenue concerns. 

Free doesn’t mean no costs 

For businesses looking to adopt open source, examples like this are key to remember. Despite the underlying platforms being free, there are still costs in running an open source environment and when done without careful consideration, these costs can even be higher than with proprietary software. As such, organisations need to be aware of the challenges which predominantly inflate costs and the ways they can avoid them. 

Stack complexity 

The question is often asked: How do open source companies make money? Well, the answer to that is by selling various products and services which manage different parts of the stack, such as support for Kubernetes. Contrary to popular belief, the open source services industry is actually incredibly lucrative, with a recent report from CB Insights predicting that it will reach nearly $33 billion by 2022. 

What makes this industry so profitable is that vendors will typically specialise in different layers of the stack and applications. This means that to get the best solution for each part of the stack, organisations have to engage the services of multiple different vendors. As well as making the management of the open source environment increasingly complex, it is also very expensive. What’s more, with such specialised solutions, these open source vendors can increase their prices and lock customers in. 

Addressing the skills gap 

The obvious solution to the complexity of a multi-vendor approach is for IT teams just to manage it themselves, right? Well, despite having a large and very active community – estimated at 30 million developers – there is still a significant shortage of developers with open source skills. This shortage is so acute that 87% of hiring managers have said that they experience difficulties in recruiting open source talent, according to the Linux Foundation’s latest survey. 

As a result, there is a serious lack of understanding about how to build a sustainable open source strategy. It is often believed that the community of open source developers is a viable alternative to having an in-house developer headcount and this is one common reason for enterprises abandoning their projects. While source code is readily available from the community, without the internal talent businesses don’t have the capacity to adapt products for the business and make them versatile enough for other functions. 

Deriving value from open source 

When running multiple nodes in an open source stack, each requires a bare metal provisioner, OS, IS, container coordination and more to function effectively. But, this process has created unnecessary expense, complication and friction for businesses investing in an open source strategy. As a result of these challenges and unexpected costs, it’s not uncommon for organisations to abandon their open source strategy – losing investment and faith in the ecosystem. 

Costs are unavoidable with any innovation. But by carefully considering how to create a sustainable open source environment which allows for continuous development, businesses can realise a very high return on investment. 

To flatten costs, enterprises should opt for vendors which offer packages on a per-node basis which encompasses all of the different technologies running on it, rather than itemising and charging for each component. Put simply, if a business wants to move its workload around or add an extra layer of infrastructure to the node, they won’t be subjected to additional costs. This also gives businesses a simple and cost-effective way to introduce new technologies in the future, without having to go through the procurement process again.

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