by Esther Schindler

How Do Enterprises Learn About Open-Source Alternatives?

Jun 01, 2008 3 mins
IT Leadership

Let’s say that a company is philosophically willing to use open source. How does it learn about the best software for the company’s purposes?

There’s an established old-school standard for shopping for a new software solution. You find the obvious candidates, perhaps by reading magazines, googling, or asking the person sitting next to you at a conference. After looking over the likely-sounding possibilities, you ask their sales staff to come in and give you a dog-and-pony show. And then you evaluate their pitch: over lunch, over a trial project, whatever.

Open-source software doesn’t usually work that way. Sure, the big established open-source companies that advertise “enterprise editions” might do so (along with offering tech support, training classes etc.). They have marketing departments (as did one I wrote about a while ago). But the rank-and-file open-source project is still a bunch of enthusiastic volunteers whose attention is more on making the technology great than on selling it to the Suits.

As a journalist, I’m on the receiving side of plenty of pitches myself, and if I had a nickel for every time I heard someone claim to be the “leading vendor” or offer “revolutionary technology” I could probably retire. So yeah, it’s not that I exactly love marketing pitches. But a good pitch does summarize what the product can do and it enumerates the software’ best features (even if the brochure just-so-happens to leave off the things it’s not quite so great at). Open-source FAQs are often written for other developers or at least for techies, and they rarely include a feature/benefit chart meant for decision-makers. In other words: you’re expected to lurk for a week on the mailing list or in the IRC channel. That’s not something I see most CIOs doing.

As a result, I sometimes wonder if great software that would be perfectly suited to an enterprise’s needs is left undiscovered. So do IT execs, apparently. According to the survey just published on Friday, the second most common barrier to open-source adoption is the awareness or knowledge of available solutions. I’m sure we’ll discuss the other challenges throughout this week (such as product support concerns and security)… but this particular one intrigues me because it’s about people and communities.

It’s not easy to get a good sense of “which is the right product for me”—an exec can drown in data that’s too granular. What advice can you all offer for making the right software choices?