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Free as in Cats

I once heard the phrase that most open source projects (the context was specifically Drupal) was not free as in beer but was free as in cats.

What he meant by that is that you may not pay for the code up front, but you probably do have to pay to keep it running and you need to give it your attention if you really want to get the best of it. It’s not something you can enjoy with no responsibility.

Cats need food, attention (sometimes while you’re trying to sleep or use your computer), clean litter, play time, and so on. Open source technology needs code maintenance and infrastructure to run it.

This is a conversation that came up a lot in a previous job that included consulting with non-profit clients on Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) systems. They were often very excited that we could help them get set up with CiviCRM, an open source platform, in part because it was “free.”

We made a habit of explaining that the code may be free, but there would still be costs in other ways. There were costs paid to us to help them configure it properly. There were costs paid to us to apply software maintenance updates on a regular basis. There were costs for a web server to host the site, and CiviCRM did need meaningfully more power – which meant more expensive – than a simple WordPress shared host. There would often be the cost of bugs, both in terms of lost productivity while the bug was present and in terms of time/money to get the bug fixed. There were costs to develop any custom extensions. They had to know all this before they signed off on a project.

Not always, but sometimes – especially with non-profit deals available with services like Salesforce and Dynamics 365 – it would actually be cheaper in both time and money to use a paid closed source hosted platform than to use the “free” CiviCRM. That depends on a few variables including number of users and how many customizations would be needed. And of course, there were other variables as well unrelated to cost (CiviCRM is built for non-profits first). Cost isn’t the only factor, but it often is the first one that comes to mind for non-profits on a tight budget.

Open source is great. I’m thankful for many great open source systems including CiviCRM and Drupal. Just know that “free” is “as in cats” rather than “as in beer.”

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.