The Myth of "Free Open Source Portals"

Paul Hinz forwarded us an old whitepaper and presentation from IBM back in 2009 that sought to debunk the "myth of free open source portals." The main idea was that open source portals might save you money on licensing but the savings would be outweighed by extra costs in development, upgrades and maintenance. 

Just for fun I did a little research to see whether Liferay expertise is more expensive than, say, Websphere Portal knowledge. And it turns out that it is! ... by about 5%, according to

Of course, that extra $6,000 per head could add up. But that 5% is probably statistically insignificant given the fluctuations of these salaries over time: 

It's definitely good to see that on the whole, Liferay knowledge is increasingly valuable in the marketplace as more companies realize they can achieve greater business agility and better solutions using the Liferay platform. For our community, that's a confirmation that the investment you're making in open source will be rewarded financially.  

But hopefully the motivation for working with Liferay goes beyond the numbers. The very popular TED talk by Dan Pink about motivation listed three main factors leading to better performance and satisfaction: 

  1. Autonomy
  2. Mastery
  3. Purpose

While I'm sure you can find these working with any technology, I think Liferay and open source are uniquely suited to maximize them: 

  1. Autonomy: the freedom of open source gives you a lot of control over the technology you use. You can modify the code and make contributions that affect the direction of the software. Proprietary vendors don't give you the same degree of flexibility. 
  2. Mastery: technology that's open can be explored in greater depth than closed technology. Mastery of closed technologies is limited to the use of it; with open source, you can truly understand the software inside and out. This is not to say that you have to do this to effectively use open source software, only that the option is there. 
  3. Purpose: the mutually beneficial nature of open source is further motivation for people who work with it. They sense that there's a greater purpose to the investment being made in the software than just an employer's business goals or the profit of the vendor. And with Liferay in particular, we have the added dimension of our vision to use business and technology to make a positive impact on the world. 

Getting back to the main question, though: are "free open source portals" a myth? Definitely! Technology is never free even if the license cost is free. An investment in Liferay is an investment of resources, including time, development budget, and blood sweat and tears. We would be among the first to agree that open source != free: we've built a business around it. 

However, I would argue that open source software results in a more efficient application of resources overall than proprietary software:

  • License budget is freed up for customization or integration
  • Development and innovation are shared and re-used
  • Improvements are made more quickly in a community of users
  • Bugs and security issues are discovered more quickly when source is accessible
  • Developer resources over time are more abundant because access to the technology is freely available, thereby driving costs down to a healthy market equilibrium

Further, Liferay is particularly effective in delivering greater return on assets because we are so widely deployable:

  • Existing investments in content management systems, ERPs, databases, OSes, and application servers can be retained; Liferay runs on all major platforms and integrates well with third party applications
  • All the attendant expertise around these technologies are retained as well

What about the allegations that open source costs more to deploy, customize, upgrade and maintain? Here's where the presenters do a little voodoo. By speaking generally about all open source, they are able to call to mind the weaknesses of community supported, non-commercial open source (think Apache projects, for example) and associate them mentally with commercial open source, which is managed, focused, offers specific support SLAs, and has recommended best practices for maintainability. 

If you have a random developer without Liferay knowledge go in and hack up Liferay code and produce a customized solution, you will definitely have problems with upgrades and maintenance. Proprietary vendors prevent this a priori by disallowing access to the source code. But rather than taking that restrictive approach, Liferay supports customization architecturally with our Plug-Ins SDK and through best practices, which can be followed by any developer. 

So the risk with open source is not that it inherently takes longer or is more expensive to deploy, but that the power granted to the developer will be used incorrectly. It's a problem of due diligence: open source requires you to do a little more homework when choosing your developers or system integrators.

In any case, I'm probably preaching to the choir here, but perhaps this can be some ammunition for you when you are trying to convince your boss why they shouldn't believe IBM's FUD. :)