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There's no such thing as a free lunch. Or a free intranet as the case may be. But building your own intranet on a free open source platform has its benefits PHOTO: NeONBRAND

Intranets are the workhorses of internal communications. 

Since their introduction in the mid-'90s, intranets have been used for corporate communications, collaboration, file sharing and knowledge management. But with premium solutions from the likes of Microsoft and IBM requiring hefty financial investment, free and open source intranet solutions are a very real option for enterprises.

But before we explore those free intranet solutions, let’s clear up a misconception.

Free and Open Source Software Comes at a Cost

When it comes to acquiring software, an enterprise has two broad options: buy or build.

Buying may come in the form of a large up-front payment for turn-key on-premises solution, or through monthly fees for a SaaS product. But when it comes to building a solution, an enterprise will often seek out open source software to use as a foundation. This is often seen as the most cost effective solution — but is it?

Building upon an existing open source product sounds like a smart way to bypass heavy up-front investment or ongoing fees — but the reality is, free software is never truly free.

All that building takes up the time and resources of in-house developers, while the money needed to hire a digital agency to smooth over the process often runs just as high. After deployment, you will those same in-house teams or contractors on hand to handle ongoing maintenance and feature upgrades, incurring yet more cost.

The Pros and Cons of Buy vs. Build Intranets

Gary Tyreman, CEO of Univa, made this point when speaking with CMSWire’s Virginia Backaitis. He said the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of most proprietary software is lower as compared with open source. His reason being that proprietary software requires less support and fewer services, but also because there’s less downtime with it.

CMSWire spoke to Jed Cawthorne, the director of business technology strategy and knowledge management in the Legal, Corporate and Compliance Group of BMO Financial Group for his thoughts on the issue. According to him, building an intranet solution from scratch, or on top of open source software, is often not worth an enterprise's time or money:

"Is it worth it for an enterprise or large company to invest time and development resources? It depends on the organization, their corporate culture and their IT strategy,” Cawthorne began.

“However in my nine years as a consultant, I can say I have come across exactly one — yes just a single one — 'enterprise' intranet built on open source platforms. And as far as I know, that enterprise is now migrating off its home grown open source-based solution and is moving to Microsoft's Office 365 platform,” he said.

Cawthorne went on to explain that, while some organizations find the effort of building, patching and maintaining systems based on open source platforms worth their while, “the general movement seems to be towards turnkey solutions.”

“[Organizations] seem to be going for the model of buying one of the many 'out of the box' solutions that are basically a set of enhancements to SharePoint; giving the customer a 'configure instead of customize' experience,” he said.

7 'Free' Intranet Solutions

So if building wins out over the buying route, here are seven free intranet solutions to explore:

1. BuddyPress

As the name suggests, BuddyPress is a WordPress-based software that lets you build any type of community website with member profiles, activity streams, user groups, messaging and notifications. Hundreds of third-party plugins are available for extra functionality, too.

2. Cyn.In

Cyn.in touts itself as  “the first open source collaborative knowledge management appliance.”

It’s built on top of a Plone — Zope — Python stack, it boasts wikis, blogs, workflow management, collaboration spaces, messaging and more.

3. Bitrix24

Available as an on-premises and cloud solution, Bitrix24 is a free intranet portal that enables enterprises to collaborate on projects, share files, automate HR processes, create approval workflows, use shared calendars and more.

4. PBWiki

PBWiki provides content collaboration, social software, management reporting and of course, in-house wikis.

5. Quaive

Quaive is the standalone intranet product extracted from Plone, the fully fledged free and open source enterprise CMS. Among other features, Quaive delivers messaging, newsfeeds, project and milestone tracking and content versioning.

6. Twiki

It is a structured wiki, typically used to run intranets and extranets. Users without programming skills can create web applications, while developers can extend the functionality of TWiki — including file management and access control — with plugins.

7. Open Atrium

Built on Drupal, Open Atrium comes bundled with discussions, events, file management, issue tracking, document wikis and drag-and-drop layout control. Plugins are also available to help bolster functionality.

To Build, Or Not to Build

The question of building versus buying is an ongoing debate. It’s fair to say that most enterprises will always prefer turn-key solutions, but for those optimistic about their own ability to produce bespoke software — and adamant about “owning” their code — the seven free intranet solutions above can be a starting point.