Closed-Source Software for When You Are Serious

Before I started writing this post, I queried some colleagues for input about using closed-source software vs. open-source software. One made his case by quipping, "The most expensive software I ever purchased was free."

Though he said this in jest, I think it accurately defined the issue with open-source software, and he certainly made his point. When considering enterprise solutions, you have to consider more factors than the license fee. These include continued support and innovation, site security, legal complications, and even training the staff.

What I like about the concept of open-source software is that it provides a framework or platform for developers. However, this also may be my biggest objection!

If I have many individuals (i.e., weekend code warriors) working on features, how am I able to ensure the software has the features my company wants and needs? Who evaluates the marketplace to determine the key feature set?

I suppose the recommended solution is to hire a consultant group that can customize the software to meet my special needs. As long as I can determine all of my requirements and determine the future needs, the consultants should be able to create the software package of my dreams. What I have seen happen in these instances is that changes and innovations to the customized package become extremely expensive to maintain and support. Once the software becomes ingrained in the user base, it becomes nearly impossible to unseat.

Of course, just because you use open-source software doesn't mean you have to customize it. You may be able to take advantage of the developers who create a solution you can use. However, you may also open a door to hackers who can exploit the software weaknesses more so than with closed-source software. Depending on the software's purpose within your organization, this may or may not be a huge factor. For instance, the hacker who controls the vending machine and randomly rewards someone with a free soft drink is probably not a huge concern. However, a hacker who can infiltrate an infrastructure with malicious intent certainly is.

Really, none of this worries me -- what I see as the biggest problem is not having someone who has skin in the game. If no one owns open-source software and it fails, resulting in lost revenue for my business, what will I do? Who do I call when it doesn't work or I don't understand how to use it? Moreover, where do I send the new employee for training? Again, am I back to a group of consultants, or do I have to establish my own in-house team?

If the software supports key functionality within my business, then I want someone to stand behind the product. Wouldn't a business want to know that company used sound development methodologies and rigorous testing processes and was confident of the product prior to release? Moreover, my license fee not only pays for the usage but also allows the company to continue product innovations. Even if my competitors are using the same software, they may make suggestions to the vendor for features that I also need and would benefit from having.

As with other commodities, let the marketplace determine the price and the players. If I continually produce the best solution, then reward me for it. If my solution rarely fails, then reward me for it. If my solution allows your company to be 100 times more efficient or saves millions of dollars, then encourage me to continue!

Does open-source software have a place in the enterprise environment? You tell me below.

Point / Counterpoint, Senior SAS Consultant for Zencos

Tricia Aanderud, Director, Data Visualization Practice at Zencos Consulting, provides SAS Consulting services to organizations that need assistance understanding how to transform their data into meaningful reports and dashboards. She has co-authored three books with her most recent title "Introduction to SAS Visual Analytics". She regularly shares data visualization tips and SAS knowledge through her BI Notes blog ( Tricia has a background in technical writing, process engineering, and customer service. She has been an enthusiastic SAS user since 2002 and has presented papers at the SAS Global Forum and other industry conferences.

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Re: One-two punch
  • 9/28/2012 4:35:28 PM

"I have tried some open source software and was frustrated by the process. My biggest complain was lack of support."

This is also another key determining factor between using open source or not.  Typical open source software can be extremely complicated in setting up.  Although this was a bigger issue a number of years ago.  Nowadays open source collbaorators have come up with traditional solutions for product installation.

Who determines...
  • 9/28/2012 4:31:14 PM

"If I have many individuals (i.e., weekend code warriors) working on features, how am I able to ensure the software has the features my company wants and needs? Who evaluates the marketplace to determine the key feature set?"

I think open source usually means that people have full access to the "guts" of the program and can make whatever changes, but there is usually a core group of users who dictate what is deemed worthy of becoming officially adopted.  I think you map out what it is you definitely need and what you want and compare them against the feature set of various open source solutions.  If your potential solution doesn't fit what you need now, there's no use waiting around for it to be implemented by the community.  Or if it has more than what you need, this is no different than enterprise software where users end up taking advantage of only a small percentage of the entire feature set.

Open vs. Licensed
  • 9/28/2012 4:26:29 PM

Obviously it depends on what the application for the software is, but for the most part I find open-source programs are set up trying to mimic the "big boys".  For example, the open source photo editing software Gimp tries with all of its little heart to be Photo Shop.  At the end of the day, all it winds up being is a poor man's PS.  I feel, and this is just my personal opinion, that most open source software follows this trend.

One exception would have to be Content Management Systems.  Joomla and Drupal are two extremely powerful and versatile CMS that are, in many ways, better than enterprise solutions.

Re: One-two punch
  • 8/21/2012 4:19:40 AM


I think the adoption likelihood is centered on different types of software, and what is accepted as strategic to the company.  Most companies that see the application as an essential part of how services and products are delivered are going to want to see high-quality service for those applications.  It's why some open sources are treated like a public service or a utility and why others are supported.

  • 8/19/2012 7:20:40 AM

Why do you think that is?

Re: One-two punch
  • 8/19/2012 7:11:47 AM

Do you think some industries are more accepting of open-source than others?  Or do you think it's centered around the type of software?  For instance, WordPress and Linux may be welcomed but other software packages would not be seriously considered.  

Just this year I noticed that Pentaho made an entrance on the Gartner Magic Quandrant for BI, but it is only a niche player.  Seems like the closed-software packages for BI still lead the pack. 

  • 8/18/2012 6:08:59 PM


BenBJohnson writes

I will say that one downside of closed source is that the company that makes your software could just close its doors.


Yes. Also, with some closed-source software companies, user support is zilch.  While I don't have experience selecting software for a large organization, on a personal level, my experience is that the quality of closed or open software depends on the software and the provider.


Re: One-two punch
  • 8/18/2012 5:27:04 PM

I would say that we don't have to take sides in open-source/closed-source; that discussion is so 1990s... Many companies will use a combination of both and the art is finding the right balance for each application. 

Re: One-two punch
  • 8/18/2012 11:19:55 AM

Thank you for your response - I enjoy the debate! I was not exactly sure how to take a side on closed source software.  



Re: One-two punch
  • 8/18/2012 12:17:34 AM

I will focus this reply on a direct competitor of SAS: the R statistical system, which is both free in the sense of open source and purchase cost. As other commenters have pointed out before, free doesn't mean no cost but mostly access to the source so it can be adapted, if needed, to particular requirements. On terms of experience, I used SAS for over 10 years in an almost daily basis (mostly the BASE, STAT, GRAPH and IML modules), although now I rarely use it. I started using R in 1999, while working in my PhD. I completely moved to R around 2008.

Reading your piece one would think that R was maintained by "weekend warriors" but, let's face it, the list of core contributors is very respectable. In fact, the list of contributors beyond the core—to R "packages", libraries that extend functionality—also include many domain-specific experts.

Is closed source free of problems? No. I vividly remember one day, I think it was 2002/3 when we decided to rerun some analyses we did with proc glm a year before. In the meantime we changed SAS versions and some effects changed from significant to non-significant. We contacted SAS and, yes, it was an "issue", which was sorted in the next release. Does R have "issues"? Of course it does, but there are many more eyes looking at them and working on fixing them, often more quickly than in SAS.

Will your company get employees that know how to use open source? In many departments we have moved to teaching statistics using R, so your future employees are in fact much more familiar with R than with SAS. In some universities, stats departments basically dropped SAS from their curriculum.

Will your company get support with R? Yes, look at the traffic of the main email list for R. In addition, there are companies that provide R in a commercial basis, with commercial support; e.g. Revolution Analytics.

Will your company get access to the latest analytics procedures in R? Well, you will *only* get access to those in R, because most statisticians first implement them using R. That's why SAS *had* to provide access to R.

Am I saying that R is superior to SAS? No. However, I think that your reasons and experience with analytics open source software are quite shallow. I think that companies will have to consider their specific circumstances, legacy systems, interfaces to other systems, etc. when considering how to manage their analytics. A good professional will apply a "horses for courses" approach in building the best possible system for his/her clients/customers. Sometimes the best solution will be closed source, sometimes open source and sometimes a combination of both. Rather than presenting a caricature of open source alternatives we should strive to learn about available options for our customers, even if they are open source.


P.S. Funnily enough SAS uses an open source product (Apache) to serve their web site. Aren't they serious about their web presence?

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