Missing the Point…

Over the last several years I’ve really come to respect the insight and forward thinking of the people running InfoWorld magazine. InfoWorld is one of three enterprise IT magazines I am subscribed to, the other two being InformationWeek and eWeek. InfoWorld is the only one I read consistently, to the point that I’m a little worried when it hasn’t arrived at my office every Monday or Tuesday. Lately I’ve been thinking about what it is that I like about InfoWorld so much, and I believe it mainly comes down to three people, all columnists for the magazine: Chad Dickerson, Jon Udell, and Tom Yager. I look forward to hearing their opinions every week and learning from their deep knowledge of information technology. Each of them has a blog, which is awesome, and I recently put two and two together and realized that Jon Udell is the same Jon who is part of the Gilmor Gang. So basically they’re smart and they really seem to understand the problems faced by enterprise IT.

In the recent January 24th issue of InfoWorld, Chad had a column titled Subscribe vs. Build, that I really identified with. At the end of a previous column, he mentioned in passing that InfoWorld would probably stop using its implementation of SpamAssassin, a popular open source anti-spam program. This was apparently taken personally by some in the Linux/open source community, as seen on this message board comment at Linux Today. The reader’s basic message was that Chad did not understand how email worked and was therefore unqualified to give any advice about information technology.

People like that (there seem to be a lot of them on Slashdot) are missing the point of computers and information technology. The only reason IT is used so much by business is that it, at its very core, saves money. Whether that means more productive employees, less employees, cheaper transaction costs, less expensive marketing, quicker/better communication, it all comes down to cost savings. People who see the open source software movement as a religion sometimes forget that there are commercial solutions that are cheaper over their lifetime than free software such as Linux or SpamAssassin. In fact, it doesn’t seem to matter to them – open source is the only way.

Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t think I should have to know how email works in order to use it or to use anti-spam software. It is beliefs like those of the commenter on Linux Today that are hurting the open source community. Some of them are great programmers, but some are also elites who would have everyone doing their work from the command line if they had their way. Fact is, “free” open source software is not really free when it comes to the bottom line. The cost of software is only a small part of the investment, most of it going to pay staff to administer and support it. Over the life of the software that adds up to be a lot of time and money.

As Chad mentions in his column, they were looking at an outsourced spam subscription service, although he didn’t mention which one. The cost savings are very real and don’t take long to become significant:

In the case of the outsourced spam solution, I did the math and realized that the monthly fee for the outsourced service was roughly equivalent to one hour per month of our very capable system administrator’s time, not to mention that we wouldn’t require servers, backup tapes, power, and cooling. Functionally, the outsourced service also offers a better end-user UI to manage personalized spam rules. For me, the choice was a no-brainer.

I totally agree with Chad and his point of view. In fact, if I were starting a business today, I would try my best to find as many hosted solutions as possible so that there wouldn’t be an IT department in the traditional sense. I’d use Salesforce.com for CRM, Jotspot for intranet applications (more on Jot in a later post), MailStreet or Mi8 for email and collaboration, and something like Rackspace for web hosting/application hosting. I know I’m missing some pieces there, but such a setup would let a business get up and running very quickly with minimal cost and with the security of knowing that these functions are being managed by people who’s businesses depend on them doing a good job. That means that I could run my business with less people while concentrating on doing the things that are core to the business (hint: it wouldn’t be managing SpamAssassin or configuring web servers).

I’m not trying to trash open source software – I’m just trying to be realistic. There is a lot of good that comes from the community, including the Linux operating system, the FireFox web browser, and the Apache web server. Some applications are likely cheaper to deploy using Linux, for example, when compared directly with a similar Windows or Unix setup. Hosted services are a whole different ballgame, however. There are few small companies that can afford to install CRM software on either a Windows or Linux server – the cost and installation of the CRM software can quickly reach $100,000, and that’s without considering support. Salesforce.com, however, is hosted by the company and is accessed through any web browser. The business doesn’t have to do much except pay the per-user fee every month. In exchange, they get an enterprise quality application that is backed up automatically and that is updated with new features without having to break anything or pay extra. It works great and is the way the software is headed. Like Chad said, the choice is a no-brainer.

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