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How to choose the right open source solution for your business

There are free open source solutions available for almost everything -- if you know where to look and what to look for. Plus: Experts' top picks for free software.

While options for open source solutions and other types of free software abound, many IT executives struggle with finding the best alternative that fits their business' needs and their IT architecture.

Issues range from the functionality of the product to the strength of the community support, and whether an upgrade to a paid license will be necessary -- thereby erasing at least some of the financial benefit of going with open source in the first place.

OpenLogic Inc., an open source support provider, helps users determine which open source solutions might be appropriate and then offers technical support. It's seen an increase in interest among potential open source users this year. "Over the past three months we've seen a big jump. More and more people are coming to us saying things like, 'Our budget's frozen, but I still want to do this project -- without the software license [costs],'" said Kim Weins, senior vice president of products and marketing at Broomfield, Colo.-based OpenLogic.

Determining the best open source solution for a particular organization starts like any software evaluation process -- getting a feel for the way a tool works, understanding the support options and getting "under the hood," Weins said.

Another consideration is the strength of community support behind the tool, especially if it doesn't have commercial backing (though the top 20 open source projects do, according to Weins).

"One of the top concerns people have around open source is how active the community is and whether or not it will die if the lead developer moves on," said Jay Lyman, an open source analyst at The 451 Group. "Keep up with forums, download numbers and recent postings to keep track of project health. If the last forum post was months ago, that can be a sign of a community unable to support itself."

For those looking to get started with some of the most popular tools, here are some free downloads to try, as recommended by open source experts.

Customer relationship management: SugarCRM Inc.'s free community edition
SugarCRM is open source customer relationship management (CRM) software. Its free community edition is capable of handling the day-to-day needs of small to medium-sized companies with up to 1,000 users.

The free edition is ready to go "right out of the box," said Martin Schneider, director of product marketing at Cupertino, Calif.-based SugarCRM.

"I use the car methodology when talking about open source now," Schneider said. "When you buy a car, you don't have to buy the engine or the wheels or the chassis separately; it all comes together. Same with open source now -- you can get free, fully realized applications ready to roll."

The free community edition has an open framework and comes in a package that includes bug tracking, project management, dashboards, activity management, email clients and more. Schneider said it's perfect for someone new to CRM because it provides built-in tools, a knowledge base and community forums for support. Additional resources and support are available at SugarForge, including 600 extensions, add-ons and language packs.

As an organization evolves, upgrading to the subscription edition provides a "few extra bells and whistles," according to Schneider. Overall support, deep reporting, team management, mobile user support and cloud connectors come with the paid subscriptions.

Data integration: Talend Inc.'s Open Studio, XAware Inc.'s open source project
Talend Open Studio, a data integration platform boasting 3.3 million downloads last year, is also available for free. It includes a job designer and a metadata manager with impact analysis. The platform also has monitoring and production features on a single console and community support. The community itself has 1,000 beta testers, a technical support forum, a wiki and community contributions, including add-ons and extensions.

XAware's free open source product is real-time data integration software. It includes an Eclipse-based designer aimed at building, testing and debugging XML data views. The XML views increase productivity by hiding data access complexity. The community has 9,000 registered users and continues to grow.

"From the enterprise perspective, looking for a budget alternative, this can absolutely be used without the additional paid subscription," said Tim Harvey, CEO of Colorado Springs, Colo.-based XAware.

Although there is no purchase requirement, companies looking for guaranteed support as well as additional capabilities for easier enterprise runtime management, opt for the subscription.

Content management systems: Alfresco Software Inc.'s Alfresco Labs 3 or Drupal
Alfresco Labs 3, released earlier this year, is the free version of the Alfresco content management system (CMS). Alfresco recommends that companies use the paid enterprise version for production (it is supported and certified for scalability, commercial and open source stack and high-availability clusters), but offers the Labs versions for evaluation and feedback.

There's an awakening happening as CIOs and IT executives realize their role in the open source community.

Jay Lyman, open source analyst, The 451 Group

Ian Howells, Alfresco's chief marketing officer, said the paid subscription is about 90% less expensive than proprietary content management solutions, as listed by the U.S. General Services Administration. He also said that unlike some commercial CMS offerings, Alfresco can be used in mixed environments and within existing infrastructures. The other upside? Self service.

"You find it, download it, install it on your time scale -- try before you buy without ever having to talk to a sales rep," Howells said. "This is important because if you can't make it work on your laptop from the start, you're not going to go any further."

Another option for an open source CMS is Drupal, a package for publishing, managing and organizing website content.

To locate other enterprise-ready open source software solutions, 451 Group's Lyman suggests using and You can search repositories and track individual developers and projects to find free software downloads and healthy open source communities.

"There's an awakening happening as CIOs and IT executives realize their role in the open source community," Lyman said. "Not just downloading and seeing the code, but by participating in a community or forum and having some sway or influence in future development and new versions."

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