When Comparing Platforms, Don't Forget The Intangibles

Commercial open-source products considered included Red Hat Enterprise Linux ES Standard Edition ($799), MAXDB by MySQL ($1,490), ListServ Lite by L-Soft ($500) and the PHP development suite Zend Studioplus ($249). The Apache Web Server usually comes bundled with most any Linux distribution.

In contrast, the Microsoft commercial products the Test Center set against the open-source solution come with documentation, media and, in some cases, free support. Microsoft Certified Partners may receive added free support. Those elements should always be considered as part of the value proposition.

For solutions requiring extensive support and maintenance, a support contract with a vendor can pay for itself rather quickly. It is important to remember that few deployments remain static: they are living, breathing entities, and commercial software is better equipped with support and upgrade mechanisms to help keep the deployment alive.

However, if the plans for a custom solution call for it to stay relatively static, open-source may offer a better value for both solution provider and customer.

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Another point to consider is that many open-source products are available on the Windows platform. This allows solution providers to combine elements that best fit a business's practices. For example, open-source could be used for the development end of an implementation and commercial software used to support the infrastructure. For the right customer, a solution like that may offer the best of both worlds.

When facing an open-source/commercial software choice, solution providers need to be sure they're performing an apples to apples analysis. The overall impact an open-source solution can have on a solution provider's bottom line can be significant. If developers need a lot of hand-holding, commercial software offers the support and educational resources to help speed a project along.

On the other hand, if developers have technical knowledge above and beyond the norm and are willing to make a long-term commitment to a custom solution, open-source may offer the best balance of cutting-edge capabilities and freedom to build most any solution.

There are also intangibles that can affect the overall ROI of a particular solution. These go beyond support contracts and upgrade cycles and include training, certification as well as marketability.

By focusing on these kinds of issues, solution providers can face the competing claims in the open-source vs. commercial software hoopla as the Test Center doeswith educated skepticism.

What's more, solution providers will need to evaluate their sales abilities to promote a particular solution. Open-source software lends itself well to instances where up-front costs are a major concern, while commercial software helps to build comfort for customers focused on the long term.

But no matter how you cut it, the overall platform decision comes down to valuevalue for the customer, value for the solution provider and value for the end user. Each of those entities measure value in a different way. End users look for ease of use, businesses look for ROI, and solution providers look for profits.

Solution providers finding the median between those three factors will be destined for success.