Out in the open: the hidden costs of open-source software for SMEs

According to the latest data, 91% of small and 88% of medium-sized businesses use at least one open-source technology. And it’s no surprise.

For those who don’t want to shell out thousands of pounds for enterprise-grade software and licences, open-source lowers barriers to entry and provides high-quality business solutions without the upfront cost.

In fact, the average business would spend 3.5x more on software costs if it wasn’t for open-source alternatives. That’s a serious saving for any business, especially SMEs.

Of course, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. While open-source may be cheaper as an upfront cost, and often more flexible, it comes with a catch… complexity.

Cost through complexity

When building your business around open-source technologies there are inevitably complexities around compatibility, management, and development. Whereas enterprise-grade and off-the-shelf solutions come pre-packaged and ready to use, the flexible nature of open-source can be both a blessing and a curse.

Think of it like cooking a meal. Off the shelf software is your microwaved ready meal. They’re pre-made, easy to cook, and ready to go. On the flip side, they’re often overpriced, lack variety, and come packed full of ingredients you don’t really want.

Then there’s open-source, which is like home cooking. You get complete control over what you want to eat, what ingredients you use, and the end result is almost always nicer than a ready meal.

But here’s the catch: home cooking takes time and effort. You have to think about what you want to eat, find a recipe, and pay for all the separate ingredients – some of which you might not be able to source in your local market.

You need to invest your time and energy in cooking them, even though you might not be the best cook yourself – you could over- or undercook it, or simply never be quite sure if the meal’s as good as it could be. And then, at the end of it all… you’re left with the washing up!

While at first open-source may seem like the low-cost option, in the face of growing complexity the costs start to spiral. The need to customise and integrate a variety of different technologies takes serious time and effort, two things that ultimately push up the total cost of ownership (TCO) for your business.

After all, you’re not just paying for your chosen solution, but for all of the integrations, infrastructure and operational costs that come with it. The highly skilled engineers that have mastered the technology you’ve chosen will cost as well – and as they’re hard to come by, it’s likely you’ll have to pay very well. Complexity quickly becomes costly.

So, what’s the solution? Give up on open-source and go back to expensive enterprise grade solutions? Keep eating ready meals for the rest of your life? Thankfully there’s a better way.

Cheaper than free

Open-source software offers overwhelming benefits, from cost, to control, to flexibility. Businesses of all sizes can embrace these advantages, if only they can find a way to overcome the complexities involved. Thankfully there’s a simple solution — outsource the complexity.

Given that open-source technology is collaboration-driven, the solution to its growing complexity must also come from collaborating. In short — make it someone else’s problem!

Rather than attempting to personally manage all aspects of an open-source system, businesses should instead outsource that process to a third-party partner. This partner can act as a central curator, helping to improve, connect, and support their open-source technologies. And because they specialise in dealing with complexity, they can also teach, establishing best practice and economies of scale – as well as sharing those cost savings themselves!

The result is a system that retains all the benefits of open-source, while feeling more like an off-the-shelf solution. Returning to our home cooking example, third-party management becomes your own personal chef: all the benefits of home cooking, without the effort, ensuring the best ingredients and the perfect cooking.

To bring this analogy into the real world, let’s look at a technical example — Apache Kafka.

Payment when it’s due

Apache Kafka is a popular open-source ‘event streaming’ solution, letting businesses access data in real time. The benefits of such a system can’t be overstated, but it’s a hugely complex technology, especially for an SME to manage.

That’s where outsourcing is proving so essential. Through a ‘fully managed’ Apache Kafka service, businesses of all sizes can benefit from real-time open-source event streaming, without the need to manage the technology themselves. Even some of the largest companies are now adopting this approach, switching to a fully managed service for their open-source tech.

As well as saving time and cost, SMEs can also use this approach to drastically simplify all the moving parts that they’d otherwise have to manage. In outsourcing to professionals who have the skills required to implement best practice and to manage and upgrade open-source technologies continuously, downtime is reliably minimised. Less disruption means more peace of mind for everyone.

As a third party is taking on responsibility for infrastructure, SMEs can minimise their own business’s own infrastructural footprint and/or cloud spend, as that third party is able to provide solutions that the SME doesn’t need to own, or duplicate. That third party should be able to scale to match any concerns.

That, in turn, means lower development and operational costs. There’s no need to invest in low-level infrastructure tooling if you’ve got a platform to do it for you, and especially if you’re in control of the scaling of that platform.

Such partners will also be able to provide a much wider support network for technical challenges, from microservices to expert staff. And as there’s so little infrastructure to manage, that support can be much more focused on performance and efficiency than troubleshooting and problem solving.

Having all the expertise and best practices in one fully managed service provider also ensures that they can continuously improve the performance of the environment. In the case of Confluent’s Kafka fully managed service, our cloud native solution has 16X higher performance than open-source Kafka

All these things will drastically reduce the TCO of open-source software, without losing the numerous benefits. It also allows the company acquiring the technology to focus in differentiating their value proposition, not just having to run Kafka.

At its heart, open-source software is about collaborating within a community of like-minded experts – but that collaboration doesn’t have to stop when you take the technology on. In outsourcing its management, SMEs can simplify, cheapen, and accelerate the journey to their goals.

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Out in the open: the hidden costs of open-source software for SMEs