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Are You Kidding Me?

Originally published February 4, 2010

The other day, I was at a conference in a land other than the U.S. There were the usual topics – governance, data warehousing, database design and so forth. One of the subjects that came up was ETL (extract, transform and load). I mentioned to a lady that there was a new technology for ETL that she ought to look at. I mentioned a new European ETL software company – let's call it XYZ. Her eyes got big when I mentioned XYZ. She knew that XYZ was in the marketplace. She also knew that XYZ was open source and had a substantially different pricing model than the other ETL tools. She knew that the acquisition cost of XYZ’s technology was priced significantly lower than other ETL products.

This woman said that she had looked into XYZ and that she liked their features and approaches for ETL. She said that there were many things that she liked about XYZ.

So I asked her, “If you are in the market for a new and powerful ETL product, why don’t you bring in XYZ ?” She kind of winced when she told me that XYZ does not have a big support organization like the other ETL tools.

I found this to be perplexing. On the one hand, she liked XYZ’s low price. On the other hand, she didn’t like XYZ because it didn’t have a large worldwide support organization. She wanted it both ways. A very low price of acquisition and a large support organization.

Software doesn’t work like that. Big price tag items come with big time support. Items with little price tags come with do-it-yourself support. You see, when it comes to software, you don’t just pay for the software – you pay for the support of the software. And over the long haul, the support costs of the software are more significant than the acquisition costs of the software.

When you get right down to it, the support costs of the software fall into two categories – day-to-day support and hotline issues, and long term product improvement issues. The day-to-day support issues entail providing the opportunity to call or email a person that can help out with the usability issues of the product. If a functions fails, if the software has a “hard stop,” if the software does something other than the right thing – all of these things fall into the category of immediate support issues. Someone has to pay for that day-to-day support organization. People don’t work for free.

Long term product support includes the expansion and extension of functionality of the product, the introduction of new functionality, the movement of the product into a new strategic arena, and so forth. All these new features are included in long term maintenance of the product. As a rule, as long as an organization keeps current with their maintenance, the new product enhancements are included. Only if an organization does not stay current are the long term maintenance enhancements not included. Like day to day support issues, people are required to build these new features into the product. Developer costs are some of the most expensive costs that there are.

And there are other hidden costs that come buried in the product. One of those costs is that of intellectual property protection. In today’s world, most new software has patents either filed or completed that relate to the software product. The acquisition of those patents costs money – whether the company has created the patents or bought them. And the compliance with the patents – making sure that other companies are not violating the intellectual property – requires costs. The legal costs of building and maintaining patents – both lawyer costs and technical support costs – are not inexpensive.

And if you look closely, there are other costs associated with the software. One of those costs is the cost of marketing and sales. Not just marketing and sales to the company that bought the software but for companies that in the future will buy the software. No company likes to be the only company in the world that owns the software. By having a large body of clients that use the software, an organization feels safe.

And there are many other costs of doing business as a software company – legal operating costs, escrow costs, hardware development costs, management costs, and so forth.

The lady that wants her software cheap but does not want to pay for the background support of the software just isn’t being realistic. If you want something inexpensive, you can usually get it. But don’t expect it to come with all of the “standard” list of things that typically come with software. You can have inexpensive or you can have complete, but you can’t have both.

  • Bill InmonBill Inmon

    Bill is universally recognized as the father of the data warehouse. He has more than 36 years of database technology management experience and data warehouse design expertise. He has published more than 40 books and 1,000 articles on data warehousing and data management, and his books have been translated into nine languages. He is known globally for his data warehouse development seminars and has been a keynote speaker for many major computing associations.

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Posted February 8, 2010 by Yves de Montcheuil

Bill, I think you are confusing two sides of open source here - community editions vs. commercial editions.

With a community edition, if you don't want to pay for support and services, obviously you won't get access to the support organization and nobody will be providing SLAs.  You will still get free community support via forums but there is no guarantee.  Now, the fact that many users of open source software say they are getting better support through free community channels than what they get from proprietary vendors in exchange for substantial amounts of money is another story...

With a commercial edition comes access to world class support, SLAs, legal guarantees, and all the other bells and whistles users are getting from proprietary vendors.  And they STILL get the high quality community support (which does not exist in the proprietary world).

Quality of support is not a function of the number of support engineers you have in the field (one only needs to look at SAP's customer complaints to understand this) but of their training, motivation, and integration with the R&D team...

Commercial open source only costs a fraction of comparable proprietary solutions.  But it comes with better support, and better software. 

Bill, I would recommend you suggest to this lady to take another look at XYZ, to discuss her need for support with the vendor who develops XYZ, and to ask to speak to references who are using XYZ's support.

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Posted February 4, 2010 by Anonymous

Complex Open Source Software is of poor quality.

If software "works", it doesn't mean it works. That was what the lady meant.

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