Proprietary vs. Open-Source Technologies

A party often faces another tradeoff when considering whether to use open-source technologies or proprietary ones owned by a particular vendor. Open-source software – typically built and maintained by a community of volunteer technologists – is usually free to acquire, and if its developer community remains active, it may be enhanced by regular upgrades and extensions that add new capabilities without the party having to build or buy them. Widely used open-source tools like MySQL (for data manipulation), and Drupal or WordPress (for website hosting) might already have a large pool of expert users available, giving the party access to a wide base of future support staff.

Open-source software does have downsides, though. Documentation is often scarce, meaning a party might struggle to learn how to use and maintain it properly. And like any off-the-shelf system, an open-source platform might need expensive modifications or customizations before it can meet a party’s particular needs. Finally, open-source software depends on volunteer time for long-term development, and if the volunteer experts behind it lose interest, the software can become outdated and eventually obsolete or unusable.

Proprietary systems, by contrast, usually cost money, and some will be prohibitively expensive for a cash-strapped political party. These systems wed the party to a particular vendor, meaning it is subject to that vendor’s customer service and must rely on the vendor for long-term development of the product. Sometimes an organization finds itself stuck with a toolset developed by a company that has since gone out of business.

However, companies have an incentive to support the technologies they build, and they are likely to create comprehensive documents and other support materials — such as training videos and tutorials — to help users put it to work. A proprietary software package can sometimes end up costing less than a “free” open-source solution, once all factors are taken into account.

Therefore it is important to consider the following if thinking about using open-source tools: they will often need to be adapted, customized and/or configured before use, a process that can require significant staff or vendor time; and they often lack comprehensive documentation and technical support, which can also drive up the real project costs.

 ProsCons
Proprietary
  • Built in support from developer
  • Support materials and/or trainings are available from developer
  • Price often includes all modifications and customizations, and can include training and support
  • May be beyond the party’s budget
  • Tied to a specific developer, which could have bad customer service and/or go out of business
  • Open Source
  • Free to acquire
  • With active developer community, regular upgrades and extensions may be automatic
  • For popular tools, a large pool of expert users may already be available
  • Support materials may be hard to find and/or nonexistent
  • May need expensive modifications or customizations to meet a party’s needs
  • Relies on volunteers for long-term development, may begin to fall behind the times and become obsolete without continued upgrades
  • If the choice is difficult, a party should ask the following questions:

    Is commercial software or open-source software already available that would meet the needs of the project better than any alternative?

    Yes                             No

    Does the software need to be modified or adapted to meet the needs of the project? If so, are the necessary skills and time available?

    Yes                             No

    Is a vendor needed to implement or support either solution? Is such a vendor available?

    Yes                             No

    Does the party’s tech vendor prefer one option to another? For instance, if the vendor has extensive experience with either the commercial or the open-source option, the company can likely install, adapt and configure it more cost-effectively than if it needs to learn a new system from the ground up.

    Yes                             No

    Are philosophical or political considerations involved in the choice between proprietary and open-source software? An anti-corporate party would likely favor open-source options for ideological reasons, for example; a commercial vendor may be off limits if it is working with a rival party.

    Yes                             No

    Is the total cost of either option, including purchase, installation, configuration and modification, within the project budget?

    Yes                             No

    When all costs are considered, does either option become clearly more cost-effective in the short- and long-term?

    Yes                             No

    Does either option have a security advantage? If a commercial vendor is working with other political parties or organizations, does it have internal procedures to prevent the improper passing of information?

    Yes                             No

    Does either option have an advantage when it comes to upgrades and software patches, particularly those related to security?

    Yes                             No

    Does either software package have a history of upgrades or changes that might conflict with any modifications made by the party’s tech team or vendors? Upgrades can sometimes “break” a system that has been heavily customized.

    Yes                             No

    Will either option tie the party to a single vendor, or will other technologists be able to maintain and upgrade it if the original vendor is no longer available?

    Yes                             No

    What support is available from the commercial software company? Do they offer day-to-day customer support, and/or will they install and configure the software themselves? If so, this capability should be figured into the cost considerations.

    Yes                             No

    Does either software package have particular requirements that may be difficult for the party to fulfill? For instance, “cloud” applications are based online rather than on a specific office computer and typically require consistent internet access, which may not be available in all settings.

    Yes                             No

    Will either option be able to scale/grow to meet the party’s future needs? If so, will scaling require additional costs such as software modifications, bandwidth or data storage? Does either option have an advantage in positioning the party for long-term success?

    Yes                             No