Let’s say your organization or school is making the plunge into virtual learning and researching which vendor to use for its synchronous learning tools. Should you support open source or choose a commercial vendor? If you have a philosophical commitment to open source, the choice is easy, but if you don’t, the choice isn’t as straightforward. Figure 1 is a chart that compares commercial and open source vendors, but Michele Chubirka from Information Week sidesteps some of the gritty details and offers more nuanced considerations about commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) and open source:
“Ultimately, the question is really one of requirements. Which one will best meet the needs of the organization? Would it be better served with an open-source product that can be customized to meet a very specific use-case or is it more appropriate to give up the perfect for the good? How much time and resources can a business afford to spend on custom solutions, which often demands cultivating a savvy workforce who can deploy and manage it? However, do you need to blow your budget on commercial options for every problem? There are levels or subtlety involved in these decisions that can’t be resolved by black-or-white thinking. The choice between open-source and COTS is usually a false dilemma with the reality being that they aren’t mutually exclusive.”
To answer these questions, you need to evaluate your organization’s current financial, technological, and development resources, and then consider your organization’s future goals. Below I offer some “if…then” situations and my recommendation and rationale for each.
- If you have strong IT and development but not much funding, then go open source. It’s free, and your IT and development team will be able to work with the open source code, so you won’t need the 24/7 support most commercial developers provide.
- If you have a strong IT and development team and your organization has specific needs that are not offered by a COTS company, then go open source. Your team will be able to use the code to customize the program to meet your needs.
- If you have a developing IT and development team but plenty of funding, then go with commercial. The product’s developer will provide training, support, and customer service for you.
- If you have an emergent IT and/or development department and are concerned about the security of your organization and private information, then go with commercial. Companies test for bugs and work closely with security providers to protect their customers. If a system is hacked or fails, it loses money on the market.
- If you have a small budget for development, and most, if not all, tools you need are available from a commercial source, then go with commercial. It will be cheaper and faster than building a development team from scratch.
- If your organization wants to integrate additional software and programs, then go with commercial. Many product providers are expanding their options.
- If your organization plans to expand its virtual learning program, then go with commercial. Commercial vendors typically offer more stable products and plans for growth, while open source developers are subject to whimsy, and they might drastically change their market audience or drop the project entirely.
- If your organization’s future is flexible, go with open source. Many new innovations began as open source, and by going open source, your organization might be able to stay ahead of trends.
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