The True Cost of Open Source Technology: More than a Pretty Penny
by Navrup Johal

Navrup Johal, January 8, 2013

One of the deep-rooted myths behind the use of open source technologies to build a Platform as a Service (PaaS) is that it is a more cost-effective choice compared to purchasing commercial software. Contrary to popular belief, free software is not a free ride, and there are costs to consider. Now is the time to debunk the myth and help managers make the right decision for their business.

Build vs. Install

Free solutions provide source code, but to get it to work, the company will first have to build the system. It will take significant financial resources, as well as time.

Managers should consider the following:

  • Who will build the system? Is in-house expertise available? If not, the company may need to hire external consultants to assist.
  • How long will it take to become familiar with the source code? It may take weeks or months to learn, build and then hopefully successfully deploy the code to production.
  • Will IT staff need to learn and adopt specific technologies? Will the project run on the company’s operating system?
  • What is the starting point for the project? There are probably no step-by-step instructions on how to build a PaaS, and little documentation.
  • Which branch of the codebase should staff pull from? Open source code is constantly in a state of flux, and it can be confusing to decide what to use.
  • How much customization will be required to make the project work?

A commercial software product such as Stackato is a pre-built, turnkey product, distributed as a virtual machine. The build work is already completed:

  • VMs are available for all major hypervisors and cloud hosting providers.
  • Simple setup commands automate the process of configuring a Stackato cluster.
  • Setup only takes an afternoon rather than a month.
  • Detailed documentation guides administrators through setup steps.

The build vs. install debate is not over. Companies can build their own PaaS according to their specifications. However this choice comes at a price, and managers should carefully think about whether a bespoke solution is worth the effort that it will take.

Quality and Completeness

When a company decides to build its own PaaS, it is solely responsible for ensuring that the solution is fully functional, quality-assured, and secure. The open source PaaS projects we have evaluated are usually not as feature-rich as Stackato. They often lack flexibility and important capabilities, which may handicap enterprises in the long run.

ActiveState builds Stackato with the enterprise in mind and enables user-friendly functionalities. For example, the web-based Management Console gives users a window on their applications, services, and quotas. It also provides administrators with a simple yet powerful interface for managing and monitoring the whole system.

Stackato’s LXC containers are another example of added capabilities that open source PaaS projects are not always in a position to offer. LXC containers allow Stackato to isolate applications and host systems from each other from the moment they are pushed to the system right through to deployment. This secure model gives users safe access to the application containers for customization and troubleshooting.

For an enterprise choosing to build its own PaaS, it means assuming responsibility for the quality assurance process. It can be a daunting task to know what constitutes quality, particularly if the enterprise has little experience with a custom-built PaaS. As a commercially supported product, Stackato is thoroughly tested to meet the requirements of the enterprise environment.

Support and Maintenance

In my opinion, the biggest drawback to a “build-it-yourself’ solution is that the enterprise is on its own for support and maintenance. Who does the company call when things go wrong? Who is going to maintain the PaaS once it is built? This is unnerving, considering how much downtime impacts applications and customers. Open source projects do not offer commercial assistance, and community support is not guaranteed. Conversely, a commercial product provides the enterprise with continuous upgrades and feature enhancements.

ActiveState has supported enterprise language distributions for years, and has achieved one of the highest customer renewal rates in the industry. Stackato offers commercial support with an SLA, regular releases, timely patches, and implementation assistance.

Many enterprises are tempted to build their own PaaS, but they don’t always consider what is involved in this journey. Learning new technologies and building the right PaaS can take months. We recently encountered a large web company who spent six months building their PaaS and ended up with nothing workable. With Stackato, they were up and running in one afternoon, and are now looking to expand their PaaS project.

When adding in all the development and troubleshooting hours that it will take to build a custom PaaS, is it really worth it to pay the king’s ransom for a “free,” open-source solution?

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Navrup is a Product Marketing Manager at ActiveState. She is responsible for the developing and executing the marketing strategy and product positioning for Stackato. She holds a Bachelor of Science from the University of British Columbia and Masters of Business Administration from Simon Fraser University.