Two years ago we asked what turned out to be an interesting question: Which is better, open source or proprietary software?

It sparked a heated debate. At that point, Open Source Software (OSS) wasn’t as widely received in the enterprise as it is today and many thought that its perceived advantage was limited to price (as in “it’s free software”).

How Times Have Changed

But since then some rather amazing things have happened. EMC/VMWare spinoff Pivotal, for example, open sourced the components of its once premium priced, big data platform.

And not so much because big companies weren’t willing to pay Pivotal’s big data bills— instead the idea that the “community builds better products” had become a core business philosophy around some technologies.

“Enterprises don’t want lock-in,” Michael Cucchi, a marketing manager at Pivotal, said at the time. He and his colleagues had been told by their customers, more than once, that they want to be able to influence the future of the technology that they use to drive their businesses.

“It has to be open source or the conversation doesn’t begin,” he explained.

And while that might be the case in 3rd platform and big data circles where Apache Foundation projects serve as the building blocks for commercial products like Hortonworks’ HDP, DataStax’s Cassandra and Databricks’ Enterprise grade Spark, when it comes to Content Management and ECM, in particular, we’re not sure we see the same trend.

Gartner analysts didn’t make one readily apparent in its 2014 Magic Quadrant for Enterprise Content Management.

Open Source in the ECM World

We queried several esteemed analysts to ask what they saw in the marketplace. Was the “open source” subject even on the table during their discussions with ECM clients?

“Not really,” said Alan Pelz-Sharpe, Research Director at the 451 Group. “In the post dot.com period it was a major area of discussion but over the past 5 or 6 years not so much at all,” he said.

However, Cheryl McKinnon, an analyst at Forrester Research, said that OSS is a somewhat regular topic for their ECM customers, but that OSS itself is not the seed for the conversation.

“When open source is mentioned it is often in the context of: ‘Who are the up & coming or alternative vendors in the market?’ ‘Is open source a credible/viable option for my needs?’ ‘Can an open source alternative fill some capability gaps that my current vendor can’t address?’  In addition to ECM, customers ask about open source BPM, WCM, among other related information management offerings,” said McKinnon.

Sue Clarke, a senior analyst at consultancy Ovum, said that OSS is becoming an increasingly common consideration among their clients.

“We get a lot of enquiries about open source from our subscribers, in particular those in the public sector. Governments such as the UK and Australia are openly encouraging the public sector to implement open source products where appropriate,” she explained, adding that as many enterprises are consolidating multiple ECM systems, they are considering open source as one of their options.

“In general I think organizations are looking for value for money and also looking for the solution that best meets their requirements,” said Clarke.

Independent Information Management consultant Chris Walker said that most of his customers don’t really discuss open source all that much. Even those that do,” he said, “tend to talk about enterprise editions rather than the community (i.e.: unsupported) editions”.

In other words, it’s a questionable comparison.

Pelz-Sharpe said he does see some OSS adoption, “But not because it’s open source - but because they are the right solution to meet customer needs,” he explained. ” A decade ago including open source in the stack was an area of debate but today most technology offerings have some open source components.”

McKinnon seems to have observed something similar, but noted that “Traditionally licensed ECM vendors are still by far the dominant players”. That being said, she pointed out that, in her view, there are at least a few proven open source ECM alternatives that are viable and credible.

Europe Leads

Many of the analysts we consulted with reported that .gov, .edu and .org type firms are the most common OSS adopters.

Clarke said that Ovum Government subscribers are the largest sector implementing open source solutions. Walker, speaking in terms of his own clients only, pointed to post-secondary institutions as well as some provincial government ministries. But in the case of the latter, “it’s for content centric solutions rather than ministry wide ECM,” he pointed out.

McKinnon said that OSS is more widely adopted in Europe than in North America, particularly where public sector procurement requires it to be at least evaluated. But in the private sector, Open Source still carries the perception of risk, she said.

A Niche for Open Source ECM

Open source ECM vendors have attracted several key audiences, according to McKinnon.

They include: software vendors, or digital businesses that need a content management backbone to their own offering; systems integrators that have been tasked with delivering a specific content solution, such as case management or a digital asset platform, where the business stakeholder may not necessarily care what specific components are used as a platform; and technically savvy enterprises that have “forward thinking” enterprise architects who see the value in an extensible platform that they can tailor to their own business needs and innovate at a pace that might be faster than traditional vendor upgrade cycles.

Open Source Need Not Apply

There are also still organizations and enterprises where OSS isn’t even a consideration.

Walker said that some of the energy sector organizations he works with are not even willing to mention open source in the most innocuous of terms.

“They’re heavily regulated and are under the mistaken impression that open source, by default, means non-compliant or rogue,” he said. “They think that the only way to get something that will meet their regulatory requirements, as well as their content and records management requirements, is to go out and buy proprietary tools.”

Clarke echoed Walker’s findings. “There is still a feeling amongst some enterprises that proprietary systems are somehow better and that open source is a mid-market solution,” she said.  She noted that in many cases “they are buying into a particular vendor or the idea that big is best (the system with the most features –whether they are all actually required or not”).

Pelz-Sharpe said that some companies are reluctant to go out and download an Open Source product and to consider using it for critical business processes unless, of course, they do the research and find out that there is a solid company behind it.

McKinnon saw yet another misperception. “There remains a perception that open source can add to the support overhead – requiring extra work to maintain, patch, incomplete documentation, and that to adopt it means a higher degree of self-sufficiency,” she said. This wouldn’t have to be the case, though, unless architects and/or developers chose not to engage with the open source project vendor, or an experienced integrator.

But that, in and of itself, can suggest a problem, according to Clarke. “Although open source is a cost effective way of implementing ECM, it is not cheap,” she said. “There will almost certainly be extensive customization required to make the solution fit the organization’s requirements (just as there is with proprietary systems), and support and maintenance will need to be purchased”.

Clarke also noted that there are normally large communities of developers that can enhance the capabilities of open source solutions faster than proprietary system developers can.

Crossing the Chasm in ECM

Maybe we’re already half of the way there, but it may very well look different than we think. It may be less about swapping something like Documentum out and replacing it with Alfresco than, for example, EMC’s Enterprise Content Management Division (Documentum) hosting its next solution on Cloud Foundry.

“Open source and proprietary vendors are able to more quickly innovate by including more open source in their own offerings,” said McKinnon.

She explained that over the last several years, many ECM and archiving suites have swapped out OEM’d search engines in favor of Apache Lucene rather than license expensive products from competitors or develop their own from scratch. Ditto for many of the cloud content management or collaboration vendors that have their cloud-scale back end infrastructure running predominantly on open source databases, operating systems, or analytic platforms.

 “Open source projects, often from foundations such as Apache or Eclipse, are helping traditional ECM vendors leap frog a generation of old code as part of architecture modernization projects”, said McKinnon.

Put it all together and it speaks volumes about the future of ECM and OSS.

All it will take to cross the threshold is for one or two proprietary vendors to start making their software open source and turning their code over to developers. “If this happens then open source will definitely become mainstream,” said Clarke.