Friday, August 12, 2011

Proprietary software is not the future you think it is...

OK, so this morning James Fee tweeted this nugget of late 90's "open minded thinking about open source" from a proprietary vendor.

And if you think I can leave that alone... you just don't know me that well!

I'd go through and work on the arguments point-by-point, but there's hardly any argument there. It's almost all innuendo and unsupported assertion. So I just re-wrote it from the opposite point of view largely using search-and-replace. It holds up pretty well, because there's no content, just bluster. My favourite part is the paragraph on PostGIS, which I left unchanged, since it's actually a pretty powerful argument against proprietary software (your pro-proprietary argument is that Oracle is going to kick your ass if you use open source? awesome!)


Proprietary software is not the future you think it is...

Read those words carefully. Read what they are, and understand what they are not. It could mean “open source zealot dismisses proprietary software”. It doesn’t. What it means is that while many preach the virtues of proprietary software, meaning supported, reliable, and guaranteed uptime with no technical expertise required – I do not subscribe. Closed platforms, be it maps or software, are fantastic and I believe a part of the IT industry as far as we can see into the future. OpenGeo, for example, uses proprietary software in its own products so the likes of the OpenGeo Suite connect easily to an ESRI ArcSDE server. But let me give you a couple of examples where I am coming from.

I saw a presentation a couple of years ago from a older gentleman – about my age – who had a 30 minute slot at a conference. For 25 minutes he exalted the virtues of his product, and how he can take this piece of software, and solve all kinds of business problems with just the touch of a button and you – yes you – can touch that button too. But he was also pushing his wares, and spent the final five minutes telling you how his product would be even more useful if you also bought all this other products. So the end result in that case was: this tool is great, but to be actually useful you have to buy all the other stuff. Come again? You mean its good, but I can only unlock the value by standardizing on your whole platform? But you just spent 25 minutes telling me how great this new stuff is and now I’m still being asked to open my wallet even more? Heckling ensued from the peanut gallery.

Let’s take another scenario. You have decided to invest in an standard vendor solution. To put this all together you decide to employ one or two low-end hacks from a technical training farm. Over the following 12 months these guys struggle (because they aren't very bright) but in the end you have something that works, and only requires a nightly reboot.

But a year or two down the line, your management decides they need the system to support ten times as many users, and provide 99.9% up-time. Maybe you don't have the budget to license that many cores. Now you've got to re-architect and re-write the system to scale and not require reboots anymore. And there's a problem. Your low-end hacks can't figure out how to do anything that's not in the "introduction" section of the manual or can't be done with the GUI. Given the choice between learning how to script a solution and spending 5 hours clicking the same buttons over and over, they choose the latter. Any why not? They are on salary, after all. You can see where this is going.

The point of course, is that proprietary software is not 100% reliable or scalable with zero effort. And proprietary software may not even be the best engineered solution. I am not asking you to ignore proprietary software and only use open source, because that in some ways puts you back to square one. Proprietary software has credible value to both system integrators providing sustainable solutions and individual organizations implementing systems.

Take Oracle as an example. It has been the industry standard for years, and is in many instances a credible alternative to the likes of PostgreSQL. But are you going to pay more or less for that Oracle DBA over the PostgreSQL DBA? Assuming it’s the same, or perhaps a little more for a specialist, then we’re into pure software licensing. I can guarantee Oracle aren’t about to roll over because of pricing. If a company has a site agreement with Oracle are you free to pick up another database? Even if it is free – or free to download? As some people say “spatial is special” we are increasingly seeing that IT departments disagree. Spatial is increasingly not viewed as special and won’t be treated as such.

I’ve already seen firsthand, organizations that have tried and given up on building a sustainable product to sell based entirely on proprietary software, and organizations do a complete U-turn on what they were told were "off-the-shelf" systems because of spiralling costs and concerns over maintenance. It’s not to say you shouldn’t take that path, but it is to say, it’s not easy, and in the long run it might not even be possible. The crux behind all of this is money. If we all had loads it wouldn’t matter so much. We’d buy whatever system we wanted, and lots of consultants to wire the black boxes together. But now more than ever we don’t have money. If an offer seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Proprietary software will continue to evolve and grow and I’ve no doubt more and more individuals and organizations will participate. Some organizations will use proprietary software for the press releases and "president's leadership" awards, others for the free lunches with sales reps. I still believe we are looking for products which give us the best of both worlds. Extensibility where we are comfortable, but somehow reducing the risk and ongoing support to minimal predictable cost.

A couple of weeks ago I said a more informed decision is likely to be a better one. Next time someone tells you proprietary software is cheaper overall and more reliable, have a little think about it. Use what is right, not what someone else says might be cheap.

Paul R

PS – This blog is using blogger – we use it because it’s a great tool for the job, not just because it’s closed and proprietary!


Spike said...

Nice work Mr Ramsey, it does read awesomely well in this find/replace version.

I just had a city IT director yesterday tell me that it was fine for an org like mine to use open source solutions, but a city department has much more security and regulation to follow that means open source isn't allowed in most instances. To which I politely disagreed informing him we have all their data in our systems also, and I don't fear going to jail because our PostgreSQL system with a linux reverse proxy firewall is not really that secure as he seems to believe.

It seems bespoke is becoming increasingly a slur term for anything not out of a box with a price tag, rather than reflecting the incredibly agile nature of so many mature open-source solutions. Often the same parties that declare government should be more streamlined and have less money/power also seem to think that every city government in the USA should implement a customized (not bespoke mind you) SAP/MS/Oracle solution.

I think people would be blown away should they become aware how much money our governments pump into the large software/tech companies each year and how much duplicated costs our taxes get blown on. The article on the WashPo about the potential of millenials to save government is an interesting lens into this world, the idea that a city or agency would pay for a customized CMS to support all schools or agencies is really hard to swallow given the speed at which we've built our own CMS based sites using dangerous, unsecure, poorly featured open source CMS platforms like Joomla and Drupal. The miseducation of so many of our senior tech staff on the real power and maturity of open source solutions is really hurting our country (yours too it seems, and probably my homeland too). I'm really blown away by the powerful tools younger developers can implement that actually work, it's threatening at times how creative they can be, but imagine what would happen if they could apply those tools and ideas at scale in our government!

Thanks for your work dude, oh, I'm using a quote from you a few years back in a Prezi (jump to end) as a source of inspiration, you mind looking to see if it's actually something you said, or close enough?


Paul Ramsey said...

@Spike, the exact words are "You have to admit to yourself that you might not be the person who grasps the highest purpose for your data."

Nathan said...

That's funny (the original article) coming from a company, that in Australia, is losing a lot of its customers to the open source mapping product QGIS (and other GIS systems).

Chris M said...

Hi Paul,

I was thinking that my article would be construed by some as a vendor trying to scare monger. I work for one, so people think that is going to be the case whatever. Maybe you or others have experienced some colleagues who have done that, i don't know. But it wasn't my intention at all. In fact I was thinking if I should balance the article with another one on the pitfalls of assuming purchasing from a vendor would solve all the problems, obviously it doesn't. But then someone sent me your article and I guess you did it for me.

I genuinely agree that some people will benefit massively from using open source, and I would agree that many could benefit from opening their mind to what the community can bring. Others however, only want to press the button - as you translated in your post. If PBBI cannot bring value to it's customers then they will move to other vendors or open source. As Nathan comments, he's obviously seen that happening in Australia today. I beleive that in the past 25 years MapInfo/PBBI has given a lot to the GIS community. But we obviously need to move with the times and deliver value to customers who don't want to go it alone with open source. There are pro's and con's to both.

Finally my article was a light article, it wasn't supposed to be a heavy dig at either section, but it's obviously hit a spot with a number of people. You're welcome to post your thoughts on there,

Thanks again for at least taking interest in it.

Chris M

Paul Ramsey said...


Welcome. Unfortunately your posting has too many rhetorical ticks ("I've seen many lives ruined by demon rum, sturdy men dragged down into degradation by Satan's temptation. That is not to say that men of character may not take a small drink from time to time. For some, it may even serve as a medicinal.") for me to accept it entirely as an evenhanded attempt to review the pros and cons of open source. And I hope the re-write shows how empty these kinds of arguments are, from either side.

Your invocation of Oracle as an organization that won't get off the tree is worth examining: they aren't getting off the tree, but they are climbing up it as fast as they can. They recognize that their data server adds little value over the open source analogues, so they are working to climb both up the value chain (to financials and CRM) and down (to integrated hardware/software appliances) to find niches where their overall portfolio does in fact add value.

Unfortunately their main value add continues to be in the marketing department. They spend twice as much on S&M as on R&D. Such is life in the marketplace, he who sells best sells last, at least to start with. It may be that, as they milk their installed base harder and harder to meet Wall Street's earnings expectations they end up killing the golden goose. We shall see!

mentaer said...

A month late but,... reading first the original article and then yours gave me a couple of smiles. However, most interesting at the end are the comments by others.
After the last years of success I thought people would know meanwhile.. especially that Free Software is not just about the Price tag. But it seems like there is still a lot of educational work to be done. However, thank you for your work in the past! (that made my work a bit easier... = need to think less ;).

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