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Five Pitfalls to Avoid with Open Source ERP

Do you want your ERP system to be a hobby and passion

Don't you just love spending millions of dollars to license a commercial ERP package? And then I bet you feel warm and fuzzy about hiring a bus-load of expensive consultants to come and tell you how to run your own business, following so-called ‘best practices' built into an inflexible ERP package. And just when you thought you were going to realize all the benefits of ‘off-the-shelf' software, you find you have thousands of lines of custom code lashing together old systems you didn't dare remove, third-party bolt-on solutions to plug gaps in the ERP software vendor's package, and customized reports, forms and enhancements no-one ever thought someone in your industry could ever need.

Open Source - an Escape from the Commercial ERP software Nightmare?
Then along comes open-source ERP. Kudos to OpenBravo, Compiere/Consona, OpenERP, xTuple, opentaps etc.

Open source (for those who don't already know) means that you get free software, you can extend and modify the source code, you pay no license or maintenance, and you don't need an army of external consultants. Amazing! Too good to be true!

Er, actually, it is too good to be true. Open source ERP is great for some people, but not for everyone. Here's why.

Five Pitfalls to avoid with Open Source ERP

  1. Open source ERP systems were often built on a shoe-string budget and, despite their commercial advantage, sometimes the number of active customers (not downloads) is in double digits. That means 25-100 other companies before you who have tried and tested the software. Not the tens of thousands of companies who have experienced the joys and pains of a top-tier commercial ERP system like SAP, Oracle or Microsoft Dynamics.
  2. Support is not included in the free software option. So if you encounter a bug (and based on the limited number of active users, you are quite likely to) then you are on your own. Of course all open source ERP vendors offer a support option, at a cost. At a minimum you need this and it should be the basis of any budget comparison.
  3. Most ERP open source software vendors now offer a basic version which is open source, and a version with "bells and whistles" on a paid basis. Compiere started this trend by updating their user interface to web-technology and then charging money for it. Hang on a minute - if the bell or whistle is so important, then how can you do without it? Is the open source version really useful without these bells and whistles? Is the difference in the free vs. paid version going to get bigger or smaller over time? Sorry to burst your bubble, but I have not yet found an open source ERP vendor that is a registered not-for-profit charity. They are in business to make money, and one sure-fire way to make money is to charge for things like features that you probably, honestly speaking, need.
  4. Open source by definition allows customers, partners and ex-employees to take the source code and turn it into a new offering. Sometimes the new open source package addresses a number of gaps in the earlier package; sometimes the author of the new package is greedy and wants to make a fast-buck without writing their own system, or sometimes the new system results from a personality conflict. Either way, it means that your ERP vendor might not have actually written the open source ERP package they claim to be expert in, or perhaps not all of it.
  5. Open source ERP vendors are not making much money. No profits must mean lower prices, so a great deal for the customer, right? Wrong. The one thing you need out of your ERP vendor is for them to stick around. You are literally betting your business on their software application and you are going to need to rely on them for years, maybe even decades to come. The last thing you want is your ERP vendor to go out of business, be acquired by another ERP vendor (who you can bet will slash future development on their step-child) or decide to invest their time and energy pursuing something else.

Open Source ERP Is Not for Everyone
To be fair, open source ERP is great for some people. There are many happy customers using open source ERP. Most of them have bright and tech-savvy staff on hand who are not just willing, but even relish the idea of rolling up their sleeves and fixing bugs or designing enhancements. That's why open source users are so vocal on forums as compared to commercial software users. They are the pioneers on the front-line of new technologies, blazing the trail of open source ERP adoption and adaptation. And they're proud of it.

Are you that kind of company? Or are you in business to do something else, like, er, what you set up your business for in the first place?

The Community to Complexity Conundrum
Some open source software is spectacularly successful, Java itself being the poster-child. Go to sourceforge.net and you will find tens of thousands of cool open source applications, downloaded millions of times every day. Here is an important factor to consider: community to complexity. It works as follows: The most successful open source software has a huge community in proportion to its complexity.

For example, open source software like Java, which started out life as a simple language became huge purely because of the community. On the other end of the spectrum, ERP is arguably one of the most complicated enterprise software applications imaginable ....but because it is so specialized it simply does not have the community large enough to match its complexity.

Some technology leaders bend this rule by investing millions of dollars into their own open source offerings to gain traction, such as what Sun did with Java or Google with Android. Open source ERP vendors don't have the funds to do this so they must rely on their small community battling with a hugely complex open-source set of applications.

Is Your ERP a Hobby or a Tool?
So the take-away is this: Do you want your ERP system to be a hobby and passion, or something that just works in the background? Do you want to get into the nuts and bolts of the package or get something that is easy for non-tech savvy subject matter experts to deploy and use?

More Stories By Richard Minney

Richard Minney is co-founder of iBE.net,, a developer of business management software for SMEs. He has nearly 20 years of ERP experience as a developer, consultant and project manager. Previously he was executive VP for Product Innovation at HCL-Axon, responsible for the company's successful ERP add-on solutions business. Before that, he was co-founder of Feanix, a $20m SAP systems integrator with clients like Sikorsky Aircraft and Pratt & Whitney. He spent nine years at U.K.-based Druid Group plc, building SAP’s first industry add-on solution for aerospace and defense. He began his career at Ford and Rolls-Royce. He has a Masters in computer integrated manufacturing from Cranfield University, and a MA in engineering from University of Cambridge, Oxford. You can reach him at [email protected]

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