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Free to buy

01 Feb 2010

Resolving the conundrum of purchasing free software.

By Dr John Rankin, Affinity Limited, Director.

How do you buy something that is free? Under standard procurement processes, it is often easier to buy proprietary software than to choose a free open source software (FOSS) option, even if the latter offers better business value. However, buyers and sellers both benefit when FOSS receives full and fair consideration during the procurement process. Buyers gain control over what they spend, with whom, and when. Sellers get to compete on a level playing field, rather than one tilted in favour of proprietary software.

Efficient competition is a prerequisite for an effective and varied software market. FOSS can be supported, maintained and developed by multiple vendors, giving buyers increased choice. Buyers need to use procurement processes which let them take advantage of this. The most effective model is two-phase procurement, which unbundles software from services. Firstly, adopt the software which best meets the business needs, then subscribe to the services needed to deliver full business value from the adopted software. The licence that applies to FOSS gives adopters a permanent and irrevocable right to use the software. The subscription gives limited-time access to services such as implementation and training, technical support, defect resolution and release management.

The adoption phase generally includes downloading and deploying the software within a limited user group. The subscription phase progressively scales up the initial deployment to the full user community. This adoption-led process reduces the buyer’s cost and risk, requiring no long-term contractual commitment until the preferred option is proven. This is quite different from the practice of running a pilot project with proprietary software, which requires the vendor’s permission, or using a version of the software that expires after a limited period or is restricted to a limited number of users. It highlights the fundamental difference between proprietary and FOSS licensing schemes.

To implement adoption-led procurement, many buyers follow a ‘free software first’ strategy. This means evaluating and adopting FOSS without going to tender, since no purchase or licence fee is involved. Some buyers procure professional services to identify, install and assess FOSS options, and recommend a preferred option. Procurement of implementation and support services takes place after adoption of a preferred FOSS option. To promote transparency and knowledge sharing, buyers often publish their FOSS evaluation and selection findings. If the evaluation leads to rejection of the FOSS option, some buyers publish information on how the options considered fell below minimum requirements, so that developers can improve the software.

In evaluating FOSS, buyers need to use a suitable methodology. For example, some software is offered under dual open source and commercial licences. Not all such schemes are created equal; sometimes the open source version has limited functionality and the full version requires the commercial licence. Many people consider that dual licensing ought to mean a choice of licences, not different functionality. Other factors to assess include use of open data standards, the strength and diversity of the community, the software road map, the availability of commercial support, software portability across platforms, and the release frequency of updated versions of said software.

Other buyers use a procurement process seeking software plus services. However, expecting solution providers to respond to a software RFP (request for procurement) with a FOSS solution, with no way to recover their bid costs through licence fees, is anti-competitive and brings the tender process into disrepute. The buyer’s interest lies in actively and fairly assessing FOSS alternatives to proprietary software. To achieve this, RFP documents can invite the successful tenderer of a FOSS solution to recover a one-time service fee, included in the tender price, or invite providers to include generic responses. This will encourage innovative solution approaches and send a clear message that advantage will fall to sellers demonstrating best overall value.

Finally, buyers need to demonstrate to a sceptical FOSS vendor community that they will give full and fair consideration to FOSS options. Unfortunately, some buyers have a bias (stated or unstated) towards commercial (ie: proprietary) off-the-shelf software and use FOSS alternatives to extract discounts from a proprietary vendor. Many people argue that demonstrating commitment to open data standards and interoperability is one essential pre-condition. A simple way to show this is by making RFP documents available, and accepting tender responses, in ODF (OpenDocument  Format).

By using procurement processes that give equal opportunity to FOSS solutions, purchasing organisations extend their options and get best value for money. Unbundling software adoption from service subscription lets buyers and sellers work constructively together in new ways.