Let’s start talking about features.
If we just focus on basic functionality, e.g. inventory, service desk, ticketing system, contract management, change management, cost tracking, configuration management, IT service management, SLAs, and so on, these two sets of products are practically on equal footing. All leading open source and proprietary solutions have enough functions to get you started on ITAM. Both are also capable of supporting small and medium-sized businesses as well as large enterprises.
However, once you start looking beyond basic functions, that’s when you’ll start seeing the difference between open source and proprietary ITAM solutions. Open source solutions are often expandable and customisable. However, you’ll need a skilled developer who is also familiar with the product before you can do any customisations. As you’ll learn later in the article, finding the needed talent won’t be easy.
Proprietary products, on the other hand, can be easily enhanced through readily available third party plug-ins and add-ons that are fully compatible with the products or – better yet – come from the same company who developed the product itself. There are also other features that aren’t as critical as the basic functions but provide great value nevertheless.
For example, some industry-leading proprietary products like ManageEngine, SysAid, and Solarwinds can be deployed on-premise but can also be run on the cloud. Naturally, cloud-based deployments come with the inherent benefits of typical cloud solutions like: anytime-anywhere access, superior scalability, auto-updates, etc. Most open source solutions are usually deployed on-premise.
This is the part where these two sets of products clearly diverge from one another. The licenses of open source ITAM solutions are mostly based on popular free software licenses like GPL or the GNU General Public License. Licenses based on the GPL allow users to run, study, share, or even modify the software without any financial obligations. GLPI, one of the most popular open source asset management programs, for example, follows the GNU/GPL version 2 license and can be distributed for free.
Proprietary product licenses are the exact opposite. These licenses typically contain several prohibitions. To mention a few, customers of open source ITAM applications are prohibited from copying, modifying, reverse engineering, distributing, leasing, and using the product in an outsourcing environment.
Some of these proprietary licenses are only valid up to a certain period and need to be renewed in order for the customer to enjoy certain benefits such as support and upgrades. By comparison, support and upgrades are practically free of charge for open source products.
This is where open source ITAM solutions have an edge over their proprietary counterparts. Open source customers don’t have to spend much to start using IT asset management software. In fact, as mentioned earlier, in terms of licensing, open source ITAM programs are basically free. You just have to adhere to the terms of the license, which are not as restrictive.
Proprietary solutions, on the other hand, especially the popular ones, can be very costly. Depending on the number of nodes the software is supposed to monitor or manage, the price can go north of $100,000. And that’s usually only for a license with 1st-year maintenance. You’ll usually have to renew your maintenance every year. Not all businesses can afford that up-front and annual expense.
Of course, the cost won’t be that high if you have only a few assets to monitor and manage. In such cases, the cost would range from several hundred dollars to a couple of thousand dollars. Be warned though that some solutions only monitor a set of devices. That means, in some cases, you’ll need to purchase licenses for a server and application monitor, another for a network performance monitor, yet another for a patch manager, and so on. So, generally speaking, proprietary ITAM programs can be really quite expensive.
Total Cost of Ownership
Initial costs don’t give you the complete picture even if you just compare the two from a financial standpoint. Although open source ITAM programs are considerably more affordable at the start, they’re not necessarily cheaper if you consider the TCO or Total Cost of Ownership. If you take into consideration all expenses incurred throughout the lifetime of these programs, open source solutions can easily match and sometimes even exceed the costs of their proprietary counterparts.
The biggest expenses that accompany most open source investments usually come from support costs. Generally speaking, open source solutions don’t provide as comprehensive after-sales support as proprietary solutions. While reputable proprietary solutions usually offer a wide range of support materials, media, and platforms such as user guides, knowledgebase articles, product videos, ticket-based support, forums, live online support, and even onsite support with zero to very minimal additional costs, open source solutions are usually limited to less-manpower-intensive types of support such as documentations and articles.
Open source solutions are also known for providing support through their communities mainly consisting of their loyal enthusiasts, experts, customers and end users. However, unless the open source solution is really as ubiquitous as something like Linux or MySQL, you’ll rarely find a support community that’s large enough to respond to your needs. And oftentimes, if members of the community do respond, the response won’t be as quick as say the 24/7 tech support teams provided by large software development companies. What’s worse is that, you’ll rarely get a reply for a follow up question.
Hence, if customers of open source solutions need help, they’re often forced to hire people who are highly skilled in these solutions. But there’s a problem. Because ITAM programs are highly specialised software, the required talent will be hard to find. And because of the law of supply and demand, highly skilled experts charge a premium if you do find one. And so, you’ll end up spending a fortune for installation, deployment, maintenance, troubleshooting, and integration projects.
Here’s a summary of those fundamental differences:
Proprietary vs Open Source Software
Supports basic functions
Supports basic functions
Relatively easily available
Relatively hard to find
Comes with several restrictions. Not free.
Based on free software licenses; practically devoid of restrictions
Comprehensive and easily available
Limited and hard to find
Usually the same as open source.
Usually the same as proprietary but can sometimes be more expensive.
The trade-offs between open source and proprietary IT asset management software is pretty clear. If you really have a limited budget and want to save on upfront costs, you might want to consider an open source solution. Just be ready for the difficulties you’re bound to encounter in troubleshooting, maintenance, and integration. If you have a really good IT team (who also know how to code), then you might be able to pull off going the outsource route. However, if you don’t have the in-house talent for these types of challenges, then proprietary is the only way to go. It might even come out cheaper in the long run.