Should Free Tools Be Used to Stretch IT's Budget?

What role can -- and should -- free tools play in an IT environment?

In a drive to save money, IT is looking for freeware to help it stretch its computing budget. It's one reason many organizations are evaluating online applications such as Google Apps. Increasingly, vendors are offering products that -- in many cases -- provide robust functionality without nag screens to encourage organizations to upgrade to full, paid versions.

The lure of no-cost software is clear, but do you get what you pay for? Are there risks involved? Unlike open source software, doesn't IT have to worry about upgrades and ongoing support?

I recently spoke with Mark Flaherty, vice president of marketing at InetSoft Technology about a project his company prototyped to show how much money IT could save using free tools. (InetSoft is the maker of Visualize Free -- a free Web-based visual analysis software application that showcases some of InetSoft’s commercial business intelligence technology.) I wanted to know more about the project, and specifically what dangers Mark saw for using free tools for production work.

Enterprise Strategies: Recently you experimented with a small project that illustrated how the government overspent (in both time and money) on a site improvement. Tell me about that project -- why you undertook it and what you did.

Mark Flaherty: I was following news about the Recovery Act as an interested citizen and was impressed to see the level of transparency that the government was applying to it. The site that was built for this purpose has been very impressive, especially the visualizations about the spending data, which interested me because that’s the kind of software my company makes.

Then I happened to read about how the site was built for over $16M. Well, knowing that our commercial software could do the same job for a tiny fraction of that cost, I thought that trying to recreate the interactive dashboards would be an interesting showcase of our software. In fact, we also make a free version of it that we run as a SaaS offering, and even that could be used, so that’s what we set out to do.

I asked a marketing staffer to give it a try, and after a couple of weeks of part-time effort he had recreated six of the most interesting visualizations and made them live on the site. The only costs involved were about 20 hours of manpower, which even if you wanted to bill at an IT consulting rate comes to about $4,000.

Those savings are quite remarkable. What tools were you using? Is it open source or free?

We chose to use our free visualization app called Visualize Free. It’s a free-to-use derivative of our commercial business intelligence software, Style Intelligence. It’s not open source, which means the code of the application is not open to be tinkered with, but it is a fully-featured visualization application that lets you upload a dataset and then use a drag and drop designer to customize highly interactive, Flash-based visualizations that you can keep private or share publicly.

Your dashboard is just one area where IT could save money. What are some other candidates?

Researching free applications for a given project is a smart thing to do. Another favorite of ours is Google Analytics for monitoring Web site traffic. It’s hard to justify the cost of buying a commercial Web-monitoring application and signing up for the internal IT overhead of supporting it when such a full-featured free application that is so simple to set up is available.

Aren't there risks to enterprises using free tools? What if the company goes out of business? What's the backup plan? How do you counter such concerns?

That’s a valid concern. If you’re considering using a free tool for an operational business process, something that is not just a one-off project, I actually recommend doing a little research into the company providing the free tool. I’d only use it if it was provided by someone who has some kind of viable commercial business as well and has been around for more than a couple of years. Any backup plan is going to be painful to implement, so research up front and using these criteria are key.

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