The Frugal Side of Commercial Software

by Kenneth Hess

Cover Your Assets: Being frugal is more than just being cheap, it's being smart. Nowhere is this more the case than commercial software, where fewer options mean fewer excuses.

It's true that commercial software limits you to fewer choices and less customizable, and it increases the chances for vendor lock-in and licensing restrictions. However, those negatives pale when one examines the "pro" column. On the positive side, you'll likely never stand in the unemployment line because you chose the likes of Oracle, HP, IBM or Microsoft for your software. The peace of mind that your software vendor backs your company with its integrity, support and reputation is worth more than any amount of freedom or good feelings you'll glean from using something free of charge, free of support and free of any recourse should something go wrong.

Before you get your knickers in a twist about what appears to be an about-face for me on the subject of saving money, using open source software and generally thumbing my nose at commercial software vendors, remember: Being frugal is more than just being cheap, it's being smart. The purpose of business is to make a profit, and you can't do that if your productivity suffers due to buggy software.

Put another way: When your business stability is at risk, are you really going to accept that risk to save a few bucks?


The critics of commercial software raise some interesting points concerning innovation. It's often said that commercial software isn't as innovative as its open source counterparts. I assume this is because paid developers are somehow restricted from being clever or imaginative. The paycheck they receive must be a left-brain dampener, and the only programmers who enjoy a creative spark are the exalted and righteous volunteer hackers.

Commercial ventures seek innovation, too, but they have a product to produce, programmers to pay and customers to support. There isn't an egregious lack of innovation but rather a calculated amount of it. When it comes to innovation in the commercial software space, how many pieces of software can you name that are both commercial and absolute best-of-breed in a category? How about Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, Oracle databases, HP OpenView, IBM WebSphere and Microsoft Windows?

Innovation is alive and well in the commercial software biosphere.


Support is the most cited reason for choosing commercial software over a free alternative. Whether that support is ever used or not doesn't matter; it's there if you need it. Business owners like to feel that there's a big fluffy pillow at the bottom of the staircase should their software decided to take a tumble. In the minds of those in C-level positions that pillow provides a soft landing and a safe haven should something go wrong. There's no fluffy pillow in a hacker's basement for a corporation to land on.

Commercial software gives the business owner a responsible party on which to blame his woes. It's much harder to sue a group of 17-year-old developers in East Mongotania for lost revenue when you suffer a technology meltdown and can't use your data warehouse. Corporations look for safety, indemnity and warranty when venturing into business productivity territory.


Price is perhaps the most deceitful aspect of any product or service. You'll never know how much a piece of software will cost you by the price tag alone. Free isn't always free, and expensive might be cheaper over time. When considering price, ask yourself the following questions.

  • What is the value of this software to my business?

  • Will using this software make the business more productive?
  • What are my support options and their costs?
  • What is the service-level agreement (SLA) for problems that arise?
  • What recourse do I have in the event of a failure, loss of data or productivity?

When you purchase commercial software, support is rarely included in the purchase price. When you buy a copy of Microsoft Windows, you are purchasing a license to use the software, and it includes no support. The advantage to that software is that it is standard, well tested, easy to use and backed by one of the best software companies on the planet. At $200 per copy, it's a bargain because you couldn't afford to reproduce it, nor can you replicate its functionality with anything freely available.

Whether you buy, build or borrow software for your company, you must select that which is frugal. The frugal choice is the one that makes financial sense for you and your customers, while also providing a comfortable level of safety and reassurance.

Do you have a tale from the trenches where a software project went right or wrong based on the choice of commercial vs. open source or an in-house created product? Write back and let me know.

Ken Hess is a freelance writer who writes on a variety of open source topics including Linux, databases, and virtualization. He is also the coauthor of Practical Virtualization Solutions, which is scheduled for publication in October 2009. You may reach him through his web site at http://www.kenhess.com.

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This article was originally published on Thursday Sep 24th 2009
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