As you consider contract management systems, you may encounter the question of open source or proprietary software solutions. These types of systems offer different advantages and disadvantages when it comes to cost, flexibility, support, and other considerations. You will need to take your organization’s priorities and resources into account to decide what is best for your needs. We’ll go over some of the main pros and cons of open source software to help you determine whether it is a viable option for your organization.
What Is Open Source Software?
Open source software, also known as free software, is software with a publicly available source code that users can access and modify for their own use. This is compared to proprietary software, where the company that makes the software does not release the source code and often restricts users’ right or ability to modify or redistribute the software.
The most important misconception about open source software is that it is always free of charge. The “free” in free software refers to the freedom to modify and redistribute the software.
What makes this distinction a little difficult to understand is that the source code itself is often free of charge. Because users have permission to redistribute copies, there’s not much point in attempting to charge for basic open source software. But an open source program may come with a basic level and proprietary “add-ons” that cost money. The creator of the program may also offer paid services to configure the software for use, train your employees, or provide technical support. When considering open source software, it’s important to take the total cost of ownership, or TCO, into account.
Open Source Software Pros
Open source software can offer several competitive advantages in developing an effective contract management system:
- Open source software is customizable. Possibly the strongest draw of open source software is its near-endless customizability. You don’t need to hunt for the software program that’s “close enough” to offering the exact set of features you’d like. Because you have access to the source code, you have the ability to go in and make any changes needed for your organization.
- No need to wait for software updates. If you notice a bug or think of a new feature that would be helpful, your IT department can get to work immediately to address the issue.
- Open source software may be more reliable than some proprietary systems. Many open source programs are developed by a talented team of programmers. Once the code is ready, a wider community of users can share experiences, make improvements, and catch bugs. Generally speaking, the more popular an open source program is, the more safe and reliable it tends to be because of the greater number of people who have had a chance to review it and submit improvements.
- Open source software affords companies a high degree of independence. You don’t need to enter a specific contract to license open source software. You can use the program as long as it benefits the organization, and switch to a different system whenever you like. There’s no need to worry about what the creator might do, because you have control over your copy of the source code.
- Open source software may cost less. This advantage falls at the end of the list because cost experiences may vary. If your organization has a robust IT department with employees who are well-equipped to work with the software, your TCO may be significantly lower than purchasing a proprietary system (and updates every few years). If you need to rely heavily on outside sources to support the program effectively, you will need to factor in those external costs.
Open Source Software Cons
While open source software has its benefits, there are some important drawbacks to consider before deciding this type of solution is right for you:
- Start-up may be more challenging. Whereas proprietary software is usually intuitive to implement, open source software may require additional steps to configure it for your system. The program developer may have focused on other areas besides easy configuration, may hope to charge organizations for the service, or may see a stripped-down configuration as a perk (since it allows users to configure it themselves to their own customized standards). You may not find the same level of training, support, or documentation provided as you would in a proprietary system.
- There’s a learning curve while you identify and execute necessary changes. The downside to an endlessly customizable program is that the work of developing new features falls on the user. You may need to engage the organization’s IT department or outside professionals more intensively at first, but they will also need to perform work periodically to update the system or fix vulnerabilities.
- You might have a hard time finding someone who can implement desired features. An open source program may have been designed by a small team without the bandwidth to take on developments you need. If programmers within your company aren’t proficient enough in the software’s development language, you may find yourself with ideas and even a budget for features but no one to execute them.
- Open source code is available to malicious hackers as well as developers. There are always people out there who are interested in attacking software systems. Publicly available code means that would-be criminals can customize viruses or other attacks to the specific software program. As a program grows in popularity, this risk lessens somewhat since more people are working to eliminate vulnerabilities, but there may still be a higher risk of targeted attack than with a proprietary, hidden-code system.
- You may have to choose between proprietary developments and community support. While the base source code you download is open source, you’re usually welcome to keep any updates you make proprietary. You can develop a new feature that’s unique to your version of the software. The problem is that this new feature hasn’t been subjected to the same rigorous community review as the open source code. Your main choices are to release your code for broad use, and receive feedback from other experts, or keep it to yourself and do without. If you publish the source code of your feature for review without allowing others to use it for themselves, you’re not providing any incentive for other programmers to help you check the code for weaknesses.
- You’re on your own for problems. An open source program may not come with the same level of customer support or technical support that a proprietary software company offers. If you run into issues, you may need to solve them yourself or go through the process of contracting someone who can help you.
Overall, if you anticipate a high need for flexibility, innovation, and customizability in your contract management needs, and if you have a state-of-the-art IT department, you may find that open source software lets you develop a more precise, responsive system. If you don’t have dependable access to qualified programmers, need to get your system up and running right away, or feel unsure about the system’s security protection, a proprietary system may feel like the wiser choice.