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The Hidden Cost of Open Source Software

Open source software has a lot of things going for it. Anybody can access it and customize it for their own use. Everybody can contribute to it, sharing what they created for themselves for the benefit of others. And of course it’s free.

But it’s not without cost.

The hidden costs of using WordPress, Drupal or other open source software platforms can do you in if you approach them the wrong way. If you think everything about these platforms is free or very low-cost you can quickly get into trouble.

Open source software is free like puppies are free.

software

In many people’s minds, free = easy. That causes people to vastly underestimate the time required to manage their website. Time has value, especially in the many businesses where staffers are usually required to juggle multiple responsibilities and step lively to keep all the metaphorical balls in the air.

And web developers are not all created equal. Or, rather, equally skilled. Open source can be truly free if you’re capable of diving in and working directly in code yourself; otherwise it might not be a good choice. Here’s why:

  • Implementation is your responsibility. You have to do all the installation and set-up on your own. You have to set up and configure the web server, the database for it and any additional plug-ins you want to use. You have to install all the files. You'll need to work with the website code and settings to get the site built out in the configuration and design that fits your needs.

  • No technical support service. Once you have everything set up and running, you have to manage the site yourself. That includes critical backups. Too many do-it-yourself web developers don’t even realize they need to do backups, leaving themselves vulnerable to hackers who know that many open-source platforms can be easy to target and access. You have to implement software updates – both the core software as well as plug-ins. Then you have to review your entire website to ensure all the updates are actually compatible, working properly without problems. If something breaks, you have to troubleshoot and fix it yourself. Sometimes these issues are serious – website file or database problems could be extensive. If you’re not up to the fix, you’ll have to call an expensive specialist. There goes “free or low-cost.”

  • No ecosystem quality control. Community-developed software has a certain charm because anyone can download the software and modify it. Unfortunately, this means that there is also no quality control for the vast majority of plugins and add-ons that are developed for it. There are thousands of themes and plug-ins for WordPress, some of which are quite good but most of which are not well-written. Probably 90% are at the least rough around the edges, and many of them are coded in a fundamentally unsustainable architecture. Many of them were created to fit one individual’s situation. That doesn’t mean it will fit yours. There is no vetting process for homemade software. So there is plenty of diversity but you don’t know what you’re getting if you choose something not developed by a skilled programmer. You can’t expect to get plug-and-play functionality.

  • No guardrails around the labor market. There is also no quality control in the labor market. Anyone can say they are a WordPress developer or expert, despite the fact there are no criteria to gauge their actual skill level. Clients looking for help have to learn the hard way – and it is hard, because if you aren’t a programmer yourself, you can’t separate the pros from the posers.The latter don’t really “develop” in WordPress, they take what already exists and tweak it a little. Some of them have no idea how to write code from scratch. WordPress is essentially a PHP framework, and most “WordPress developers” don’t know PHP all that well.

We recommend two solutions.

So now that your eyes have been opened a bit, let us reassure you that it's not the end of the world. Here are the two main options when planning out the technology to build your company around:

  1. Be realistic about your budget. Sometimes it’s worth investing in paid, non-open source software, because you get professional development resources, quality control and technical support. For example, a HubSpot subscription costs money, but they also over 1,000 employees backing up their products. Those products have tens of millions of dollars in software development resources behind them. And if you need help, support is available 24/7. There are certifications and quality control for the software and the community around it.

  2. For some users, open source software can provide a flexible, useful and customizable solution. But understand you’ll still need to budget for engineering support talent, even though the software itself is free. How much to budget depends on whether you need extra help for an original build-out, ongoing maintenance and support, or both.

When you pencil it out, the total cost of ownership (TCO) for open source software could exceed TCO for a proprietary alternative. Open-source software can be a great fit for some companies and some people, but consider all aspects of the technologies and the total costs surrounding them first – only then will you be able to make an informed decision on how to build out your technology stack.