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Total cost of ownership and the third party

It’s an attractive offer – a third party, open source (or otherwise free) framework offering a host of features that your solution really needs. But is it really free?

The value proposition from these packages is quite simple. First, they cost nothing up front. Second, they have features. Something for nothing, easy sale. But things get cloudy from here. You see, in a world without customers, or users, or business objectives – all is well. But when providing high quality solutions that solve business problems, getting it done isn’t enough – it has to be done right. And that’s where things go sideways. The framework may have a feature to provide something that you need, but will it fit the way your business operates? If so, great, but that is unfortunately rarely the case. This technology will meet the needs of some other operation, and will need customization to meet your needs. And that’s where the real cost of these packages comes into light: is it more costly to customize the package than it would have been to build the feature specifically for the need?

To be sure, it will never be possible to build a solution matching the free framework competitively (this is axiomatic – the free framework is free!) But do you need all of the features provided by the third party solution? Probably not. So you must evaluate the features of the framework that build true value into your final product, and consider that some aspects of the framework may in fact increase your costs as your solution requires working around them. For example, the framework may be built with a specific user management approach in mind, but you want to integrate with your Active Directory environment for single sign-on, requiring building additional components into the solution that would have been far simpler standing alone.

The answer to total cost of ownership, like project success as a whole, is to stay focused on the big picture. Offering advanced functionality for free is compelling when evaluated on its own, but the limitations you will inherit by building a solution on top of a platform, in addition to the long term support, maintenance and scalability issues, must always remain part of the conversation. The path to success always demands focusing on your business needs first and evaluating technology choices only after understanding your objectives. Only with the big picture in sight will you be able to achieve the lowest total cost of ownership.

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