Originally published in OpenSourceDelivers.com by Paul Ressler, Principal

The Cirrostratus Group

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With over 600,000 Open Source Software (OSS) projects currently available and with every indication that many more are on the way, how do you select the OSS that is appropriate for your Software as a Service (SaaS) business? There is a lot of information available about the implications of certain license types and of course the software must provide the important functionality that you are looking for. But when you are using OSS for a significant part of your solution, what is important and how should you make the selection? It is not purely about the current functionality and the license type.

Selecting OSS is not really that different than selecting any other software that will be imbedded in your solution. Understanding the business issues and understanding the software “vendor”, in this case an OSS project, is important to a successful selection. The philosophy, strategy, and viability of the OSS project and understanding what role you want to have in the project is just as important as whether the software provides the desired functionality.

Here are three tips to help you make the best selection.

  • Selection is not only a technical decision, it is a business decision

Even though OSS does not have a license cost there are costs associated with using it and supporting it. These costs may be vendor supplied support, payment for additional functionality or salaries of the development and support staff. You should develop an understanding of the total lifetime costs of the software in the context of your solution and business plans.

The availability of development and support staff is important. That obscure project that solves your problem perfectly may not be a wise selection if you end up having difficulty finding the right technical staff. Likewise selecting the current highly popular option may make it difficult to find staff at an affordable price. Staffing issues like this should be understood within the context of your SaaS business.

Even though the OSS license issues are less complex for SaaS businesses don’t ignore the fact that you still need to understand the legal implications of the OSS licenses you use.

  • Understand the OSS project community

Just like you want to know about a commercial software vendor, you want to understand the OSS project community. How did the project start? Who are the technical leaders? How many people use the software? How many people contribute to the project? What is the volume of commits? How important is security? What is the quality of the software?

The answers to these types of questions can help you understand the size, goals, viability and potentially the strategy and vision of the OSS project.

  • Decide how you want to participate in the OSS community

Your own company’s participation in the community may be just to use the software. If so, then having the best match possible against the current direction is usually best.

However, if you have the resources and the developers have the desire to participate actively then you have the opportunity to drive the strategic direction of the community. Whether you have the future functionality you’ll need may be substantially influenced by your own participation but it’s important to understand the resources required to do that.

Security is important since if the community values security, there are regular updates related to security from several contributors and the other companies using the software have similar security needs to your own you are in great shape. If not, then you may have to drive changes that improve security and if you want software security scans you’ll need to plan to do them yourselves.

Getting this type of information on OSS projects is not necessarily easy. There usually is not a marketing department that is anxious to give you all the information you desire on the OSS project. Some information can be obtained from the project website, from other websites and from project contributors. Few overall and comprehensive information sources exist on OSS projects but one place that has a lot of information available including user ratings, lifetime investment in the project, number of users, number of contributors and number of commits is Ohloh.net, a free service provided by Black Duck Software, Inc.

Focusing on these three areas can substantially improve the probability of success using an OSS project in your SaaS solution however you will have to do some digging to get all the information you need to make the best decision.

Paul Ressler is a consultant specializing in service delivery for SaaS, Cloud Computing, and Managed Services. As the principal of The Cirrostratus Group, Paul helps his clients improve customer satisfaction, raise service margins, introduce profitable new services, and transition to the SaaS business model.

© The Cirrostratus Group 2012

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