The true cost of free

There always exists the low-cost vendor who offers something for free to win market share. In enterprise IT, it is worth examining what free really means. Derek Britton goes in search of a genuine bargain

Introduction

IT leaders want to help accelerate business growth by implementing technology to deliver value quickly. They usually stipulate in the same breath the need for value for money. The pursuit of the good value purchase is endless. No wonder then that vendors who offer “use our product for free” often get some attention. This blog looks at the true cost of ‘free’.

Measuring Value

We all use desktop or mobile apps which, if they stopped working – and let’s face it, they do from time to time – wouldn’t really matter to us. We would mutter something, roll our eyes, and re-start the app. That’s not to say that people aren’t annoyed if they’ve not saved some important work when their application stops, but typically the impact is nothing more than a briefly disgruntled user.

But if an application is doing something critical or stategically important for an organization, then it is higher up on value scale. For example, an ATM application, savings account, package or logistics, money transfer, credit check, insurance quote, travel booking, retail transaction.  What if it went wrong? What if you also needed it to run elsewhere? What value would you put on that? Vitally, what would happen to the organization if you couldn’t do those things?

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Get it for free

Application Development tooling and processes tend to incur a charge, as the link between the technology and the valuable application is easily determined. However, there is required additional technology to deploy and run the built applications. Here, the enticement of a “free” product is very tempting at this stage. After all, why should anyone pay to run an application that’s already been built? Many technology markets have commoditised to the point where the relative price has fallen significantly. Inevitably, some vendors are trying the “free” route to win market share.

But for enterprise-class systems, one has to consider the level of service being provided with a “free” product. Here’s what you can expect.

Deployment for free typically offers no responsibility if something goes wrong with that production system. Therefore internal IT teams must be prepared to respond to applications not working, or find an alternative means of insuring against that risk.

A free product means, inevitably, no revenue is generated by the vendor. Which means reinvestment in future innovations or customer requirements is squeezed. As an example, choice of platform may be limited, or some 3rd party software support or certification. Soon enough an enticing free product starts to look unfit for purpose due to missing capability, or missing platform support.

Another typical area of exposure is customer support, which is likely to be thin on the ground because there is insufficient funding for the emergency assistance provided by a customer support team.

In a nutshell, if the business relies on robust, core applications, what would happen if something goes wrong with a free product?

An Open and Shut Case?

Consider Open Source and UNIX. In a time when UNIX was a collection of vendor-specific variants, all tied to machinery (AIX, Solaris, HP/UX, Unixware/SCO), there was no true “open” version for UNIX, there was no standard. The stage was set for someone to break the mould. Linus Torvalds created a new, open source operating system kernel. Free to the world, many different people have contributed to it, technology hobbyists, college students, even major corporations.  Linux today represents a triumph of transparency, and Linux, and Open Source is here to stay.

However, that’s not the whole story. It still needed someone to recognize the market for a commercial service around this new environment. Without the support service offered by SUSE, Red Hat and others, Linux would not be the success it is today.

Today, major global organizations use Linux for core business systems. Linux now outsells other UNIX variants by some distance. Why? Not just because it was free or open source, but because the valuable service it provided organizations with was good value. But people opt to pay for additional support because their organizations must be able to rectify any problems, which is where organizations such as SUSE and Red Hat come in. Linus Torvalds was the father of the idea, but SUSE, Red Hat (and their competitors) made it a viable commercial technology.

Genuine return

Robust, valuable core applications will require certain characteristics to mitigate any risk of failure. Such risks will be unacceptable for higher-value core systems. Of course, many such systems are COBOL-based. Such criteria might include:

  • Access to a dedicated team of experts to resolve and prioritize any issues those systems encounter
  • Choice of platform – to be able to run applications wherever they are needed
  • Support for the IT environment today and in the future – certification against key 3rd party technology
  • A high-performance, robust and scalable deployment product, capable of supporting large-scale enterprise COBOL systems

The Price is Right

Robust and resilient applications are the lifeblood of the organization. With 4 decades of experience and thousands of customers, Micro Focus provides an award-winning 24/7 support service. We invest over $50M each year in our COBOL and related product research and development. You won’t find a more robust deployment environment for COBOL anywhere.

But cheap alternatives exist. The question one must pose, therefore, is what does free really cost? When core applications are meant to work around your business needs – not the other way around, any compromise on capability, functionality or support introduces risk to the business.

Micro Focus’ deployment technology ensures that business critical COBOL applications that must not fail work whenever and wherever needed, and will continue to work in the future;  and that if something ever goes wrong, the industry leader is just a mouse click away.

Anything that is free is certainly enticing, but does zero cost mean good value? As someone once said, “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten”.