|ERP for Free?|
|Application Software - Enterprise Resource Planning / Financial|
|Written by Steve Pitcher|
|Monday, 08 February 2010 00:00|
In Shakespeare's Macbeth, "fair is foul, and foul is fair." When separating fact from fiction, Bill Shakespeare could've been a systems analyst.
When I began my current role about seven years ago, I joined a true-blue AS/400 shop, and I had many new ideas I wanted to bring in the door with me. At the top of my list was deploying Linux on iSeries, desktops, thin clients, or anything else because it was "free" and "open."
A very juvenile viewpoint to say the least, and I was quickly educated about what real-world business computing responsibilities consisted of. Just because something's free doesn't mean there isn't a cost. As well, just because something is open source doesn't mean it's free either.
Open-source enthusiasts argue the benefits: a community of developers building modular software components that can be changed to suit your company's needs. Solutions are rapidly available due to thousands of programmers who have a sense of ownership and a vested interest in the software. They live all over the globe and can be available over the Web to lend a helping hand at any time of the day.
Detractors view open-source software (
ERP? For Free? Really?
No, not really. Nothing's free in this world, other than opinions and perhaps some not-so-good advice. However, there's a buzz about free ERP software that should really be put into context before your CIO hears about it. Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU Project, described open source very well by saying, "Think free as in free speech, not free beer." I'll put my realist/pessimist hat on and quote myself with an addendum to Stallman's quote: "Free beer probably means a ridiculous cover charge at the pub door."
"Free" can mean a couple of things:
With the language lesson aside, here's another quick lesson: you will usually get what you pay for.
If you choose to go with a free-of-charge open-source solution and rely on your own IT staff and a community of outside developers to provide you with the ERP customizations your business needs, then more power to you. You're paying your IT staff to be ERP specialists from now on, because ERP needs constant customizing and bug-fixing. This also means that when someone leaves your company, he or she is a much more valuable asset, you've incurred a heavy loss, and that person's experience and skill may be very hard to replace.
If you go with an ERP solution (open source or not) and pay for user licensing and support, you will be spending more each year, but at a more fixed cost. You know pretty much what the cost of computing each year will be.
Well, Who's Giving You the Freedom?
A number of companies provide OSS ERP solutions that offer freedom and a no-charge version of their software. Most of these companies have a true
Of course, you have to pay for the high-end versions of these solutions with the per-user licensing fees, software maintenance, and support. Hey, it's a business. A good example is xTuple's ERP package.
You can download the "free" PostBooks solution from xTuple.org without charge and get a fully functioning ERP solution. In comparison, here are the features you get if you purchase one of the other editions:
If you want to move into the Standard or
Aberdeen Group reviewed some of the heavy hitters in the ERP industry. You can see how they compare in terms of cost per user/year in their report.
For implementation consulting, xTuple's fees are charged at a rate of $250 per hour, $1,800 per day, or $17,000 and $55,000 for blocks of 12 or 40 days, respectively. General production support costs are not published on xTuple's Web site, but the company states that the cost depends on the number of users and the xTuple edition purchased.
All in all, xTuple looks like it gives you good bang for the buck. Now, to be fair and not mislead anyone, I haven't downloaded or evaluated the software as a critic. For the functions provided, and assuming they work well, it looks like you get a good set of tools for the cost. You'll have to get an opinion of someone who's running xTuple to get a product quality endorsement.
Open-Source ERP for IBM i with RPG?
I searched far and wide for a major open-source ERP solution written specifically for IBM i but couldn't find one. There are OSS ERP solutions that do run on IBM i—however, not in the traditional sense. By "traditional," I mean languages like RPG and COBOL.
Solutions like xTuple, which looks like a great product, are written in languages like PHP and can run in a Linux partition carved out on your IBM i. Maybe I'm thinking like an old-school, 31-year-old systems analyst who still calls the IBM i an AS/400. If I'm running a full solution on IBM i, I'd want it built in RPG and DB2 because of the rock-solid track record and continuous development of the language and because the wealth of development knowledge already in place avoids a major re-investment in new skills. If I didn't care about stability, reliability, and near 100% uptime, I'd run an ERP on another platform and recommend hiring more staff to deal with added support and maintenance needs.
I've used and abused many SMB-based ERP, payroll, and CRM solutions for IBM i, and the source code has always been there. You buy the software and get the source code. When you get into the large products, you find that you pay extra for the source code or don't get the source code at all.
Technically, I have "open source" software on my IBM i right now. I can copy a vendor's RPGLE source to a custom library, make changes to fit what the business needs, and compile the program, and the users are off to the races. I can access and bounce ideas off a community of developers that do the same. Furthermore, most vendors I've worked with will give you a lot of help in understanding the inner workings of the software because they want a happy customer. Of course, if a solution requires a few hours of their time, then you're sure to pay for that time.
Will there ever be a true and relevant OSS ERP solution built with RPG? It's possible, but the IBM i isn't something that the average programmer can spend $499 on at Best Buy. The lowest-end model you can purchase (a model 520 Express with V6R1, software maintenance, and user licensing for 20 people) runs at around $16,000. Then you need to buy WebSphere in order to get your RPG compilers. It's easy to get a laptop and start writing software on it with PHP; however, if you have access to an IBM i at work, chances are any RPG development you do is to benefit your company, not the masses. Companies probably don't want their programmers spending expensive system processing time for the greater good of the open-source community.
However, if a business were to adopt a model similar to some of these previously mentioned OSS ERP companies to build a basic RPG-based solution for free but offer expanded solutions (Standard and
Right now, many IBM i enthusiasts provide free open-source solutions, mostly in the category of utilities. People like Scott Klement and Aaron Bartell have a number of tools available. Also, the Open Source for i and Young i Professionals Web sites are great resources as well.
Free or Not to Free?
In the end, if your business needs an ERP solution, will you get one for free? Absolutely…but it may very well cost you. A business will have to analyze how much time, money, and resources it will take to get a solution it can live and grow with for years to come. Does that mean open source? Does that mean guaranteed contractual support from a vendor or support from your IT staff and a community? The product has to fit your business first and foremost. The other questions are a matter of how much your company is willing to risk and what they're willing to spend.
|Last Updated on Monday, 15 March 2010 11:11|