Kurt Garbacz is national business development manager of Itec Communications. Photo: Supplied

CAPE TOWN – Why pay top dollar for an established phone system brand, when you can get an open-source system much more cheaply? That’s the approach we see many companies taking in the current tough economy – but as they quickly realise, there’s nothing cheap about free.

The upfront costs of an open-source phone system might be low, but the more you dig, the more you find costs – and risks – popping up. So, before you take the open-source plunge on the promise of magical cost savings, consider these six factors.

What’s your knowledge of the system?

With an open-source phone system, IT teams will need an advanced knowledge of how to install and configure all the necessary components to bring the system to life - servers, operating systems, open-source software, and network configuration. Getting all these things right isn’t easy, especially when trying to do it from community-developed install and administration guides. Ultimately, the cost of implementing open-source systems is much the same as the cost of a proprietary system.

Do you have reliable support?

Once your system is up and running, it will need regular maintenance, updates and support. Your biggest support resource is often the community – and not all communities are created equal. The patch to fix today’s issue might unravel into a larger issue the next time you apply an update to the OS on your server.

What’s the product roadmap?

In the open-source community, there’s not always a clear direction for a product set. Vendors of proprietary technology spend huge amounts on research and development to push their products forward. They know how their products are being used and the direction they are going.

How much customisation do you really need?

The age-old argument for using an open-source phone system is that you can customise it in any way you see fit. But the moment you have a non-standard system, you’re going to have to become a software developer just to install updates. Is that the focus of your IT team? It’s often cheaper and easier to redesign a business process than support your customisation ‘needs’.

The real costs of licensing

The main arguments I hear for open-source products are the licensing cost and length of licensing agreement terms. But open-source licenses typically include only the bare minimum. You have to pay extra for support, installation and customisation. With turnkey software, all costs are upfront and transparent, with no nasty unplanned surprises.

Do you trust your security?

The source code for the application lives up to its name: open. Anyone with a computer and a bit of time can simply download the same source files you did and dig through them for vulnerabilities. This is not to say that proprietary software solutions are not vulnerable to security issues. But I would rather rely on the vendor that created the software, and their contractual obligations around security, to mitigate these risks.

Bottom line: open-source phone systems are very attractive to cost-conscious IT leaders. And for companies that truly know what they’re getting into and have the resources to support those systems, they may be a good option. But evaluate costs carefully: you may end up paying more for that open-source phone system than you would have if you went with a turnkey solution.

Of course, the easiest way is to use a managed business services provider, which manages your systems end-to-end for you, while you focus on your core business. Now that’s an equation that makes sense.

Kurt Garbacz is national business development manager of Itec Communications.

BUSINESS REPORT