Assessing the Cost-Benefit of Substituting Open Source Solutions

Recently I was having a conversation with a VP of Engineering about search, amongst other topics, and they mentioned in passing that they were getting some pressure to substitute a well known open source search engine for their own internally developed search engine. They were telling me that the case was not clear cut as they had invested a lot of resources into developing their own search engine to meet their needs and the needs of their customers.

Which got me thinking how you go about doing a cost-benefit analysis to assess this and I reduced it to two sides of a balance sheet.

On one side you need to assess the cost of the component you are looking to replace, presumably this translates into a savings. This is not as simple as it looks and it may well not be as significant as it looks. There is always a large amount of support infrastructure around a basic search engine such as all the document preparation aspects, user accounts, integration into document management systems, etc… For companies who make their living taking databases from publishers and making them available on their search engine, this would probably be quite significant.

On the other side of the equation, you need to assess what needs to be changed in the open source solution you are planning to adopt to meet your needs. An open source solution would typically be quite generic, so there may well be specific features which are not catered for and which will need to be built. These features would need to be re-incorporated into future releases of the open source solution. You could also be constrained by the release cycle of the open source solution.

This is not an easy calculation.


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