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Firm finds gain after open-source shift pain

One United Kingdom-based small business discovered that open source offers significant benefits, but it comes with its share of negatives.

It's nice to read what open-source vendors think of open source: it's easy, cheap, and quite possibly the cure for cancer. (That last one is my personal hope.)

However, it's much more useful to get real customer feedback on open source. That's what makes Mercian Labels' shift to open source--with all the benefits and negatives that come with such a move--so intriguing. It's especially useful data, since the company meticulously tracked the highs and lows of its shift to open source on its blog, as its managing director, Adrian Steele, told me over e-mail.

In a summary of the process, which took more than a year, the company celebrates crossing the finish line:

For the first time, we have now shut down our old Windows servers and are now running every possible application we can on open-source platforms. The final "big switch" was done over Xmas by Rich and I, swapping all the main desktops for new Dell machines running Ubuntu 8.04 lts, and crucially the phone system from Trixbox.

But getting there was not easy. Among the problems include a wider-than-desirable variety of Linux distributions to support, file format support, and cost:

The cost of the migration has been significant, the vast majority in reprogramming and improving our old MS ACCESS MIS system into a web based framework. Short term pain, long term gain, it needed to be done for business continuity reasons, but its a cost that needs recognising.

The positives, however, apparently outweigh the negatives, among them:

  • We have practically 100% compliance with software license conditions for everything we use in line with our values;
  • Open source is, in our opinion, more reliable than windows, and often has better features than the comparable windows software...;
  • We get lots of support from the FOSS community and are proud to be part of it.
  • Ongoing cash license fees are low [including Zimbra, one of the main open-source products it uses]...;
  • We have control of our IT investment future, and are not locked to one vendor with endless upgrade costs over years to come for MS OSs and the MS OFFICE packages.

This last one is the most overlooked benefit of open source, because it's hard to quantify in advance. Until you're out of the clutches of your vendor, it's hard to know in advance that they will raise prices. It's hard to know what your vendors' product decisions will mean for your preferred upgrade cycle; you may be forced to upgrade much sooner than you'd like, for instance. And so on.

Open source is not the solution to all IT problems, but it's an exceptional tool to solve some of its most nettlesome issues. That's what a small business like Mercian Labels discovered, and it's what many of the world's largest companies are also discovering.