When I was younger I loved taking apart gadgets to see how they worked. I’ve probably ruined thousands of dollars worth of computers and electronics over the years unscrewing and cracking open things just to see how they tick.

Looking “under the hood” is not only interesting but also helpful in understanding how things work, including computer programs. It’s no wonder I’m a fan of open source software since it’s just like taking apart that Betamax player -- it means that you can see the source code internals that makes the program work (if you understand the programming language used to write the software). Open source also means a programmer can change or customize the source code and recompile it into a variation of the original program. 

Open Source Does Not Mean Free

While open source is often associated with “free,” make no mistake: both traditional and open source DAM systems cost money. With traditional DAM software, you typically pay for licensing and perhaps a smaller amount on consulting and training. With open source DAM software, you won’t be paying for licensing, but you will be spending more on consulting and training from internal or external resources.

Understanding the total cost of ownership of a DAM is important for determining the actual costs involved and not just the software license expense. Keep in mind that no matter what DAM solution you choose, you’ll be paying for hardware or hosting services.

Open Source Can Be a Perfect Fit

Open source software provides a high level of control to companies that have invested in a development team. Assuming that the development team is familiar with the platform the DAM was written for, an open source solution can leverage developer expertise to create a solution that provides an “exact fit” for your DAM requirements.

While traditional DAM systems usually provide 80 to 95 percent of the desired functionality, customized open source systems can provide close to 100 percent of desired functionality. Of course that last 5 percent of functionality can be expensive to develop, so it’s important to prioritize your requirements.

Although open source software allows you to customize your DAM by changing the source code and recompiling the program, that’s usually not the best way to integrate a solution into your environment. Both open source and traditional DAM systems offer application programming interfaces (APIs) for custom development and integration.

Open Source and Security

Security is a contentious issue in the open source debate. Some argue that open source is more secure because the source code is available for anyone to scrutinize. With open source, theoretically there are more people looking at the source code -- not just developers that work for the company that makes the DAM.

Since there are presumably more “eyes” looking at the code, there are more chances for security vulnerabilities to be discovered and corrected. On the other hand, some argue that malicious hackers will use the open source code to find previously undiscovered vulnerabilities they can exploit, or to understand general weaknesses in the system.

Open Source Considerations

Now if you’re like me and are comfortable working with command lines and database software, you might be ready to jump into an open source DAM. However, there are few issues you should consider.

As mentioned above, you’re probably going to need to spend some time or money on configuring and customizing the DAM which means you may need internal developers or external consultants to help. Consider your organization’s core competencies -- do they include “software development”? If your organization’s core competency is professional photography, you may need to hire a team of developers to work on a custom DAM project.

Similarity, what is your IT department’s operating system preference? An organization that embraces Linux is more likely to succeed with open source than a Windows-only shop because Linux distros and open source DAMs often share the same environments and toolsets.

Very few open source DAM systems are going to provide an end user interface beyond a web-based client for uploading and managing assets. I believe this is because of the amount of development work required in building platform-specific applications like Windows and Mac desktop clients. If you require drag-and-drop asset placement into applications and other “desktop” functionality, there are few (if any) open source options available.

For the DAM to support various media types you may need to compile, install and configure additional open source tools, basically mixing and matching different pieces to pull together a solution that fits your requirements. I learned a good analogy for this from Theresa Regli at Real Story Group: You can think of open source DAM like a recipe for a cake, and traditional DAM like a cake purchased from the bakery. Are you the type of person who likes to bake your own cake and tweak the recipe to your tastes, or are you the type who stops by the store on the way to the potluck?

Finally, there is the issue of support. Open source DAM solutions are developed by volunteers, by companies that sell DAM solutions and services, or by a combination of both volunteers and paid workers. Open source DAM vendors typically make their money by selling complimentary products or through donations. Most open source DAM vendors offer support, but the support may require costly contracts.

Support may also be provided by a partner or be community based, which could mean poor service or slow response times. You should also consider how well the software has been tested or run through a quality assurance program, not only for the initial installation but also before installing newer versions (sometimes called “builds” in open source parlance). Additionally, if you’ve customized the source code you may be the only person who is familiar enough with the changes to provide support and ensure quality.

Summary

As with almost everything, you get what you pay for. As the project management triangle dictates, you can pick any two for a DAM project: on time, on budget or within specifications. Before deciding on any DAM system it’s a good idea to write and prioritize your use cases (which will lead to the project’s specifications). Your prioritized use cases will help you determine if open source DAM is a good fit, and if so, what level of customization will be required to make it fit your workflow.

Editor's Note: Ed is a great source of information for all things DAM. To read more, check out: Digital Asset Management: Are You a Rich Media Hoarder?