Open Source ERP is no free lunch

The community contribution model of open source centralises around the practice of ‘code commits’ that sees users, teams and organisations actively working to share advancements for the collective benefit of others. Within this framework, what particular innovations can ERP vendors and customers give back to the collective pool of software?


Before we try and answer the central question of what the ERP community can give back to open source, let’s remind ourselves of how open frameworks actually function and operate. We need to establish this clearly, because some businesspeople still understand open source as being free software. The free element here is defined by a very specific measure of freedom.

As founder of the free software movement, Richard Stallman has famously explained on many occasions, ‘gratis’ and ‘libre’ are not the same thing. “Think free as in free speech, not free [as in] beer,” said Stallman, in any number of his keynotes and seminars on this topic.

In working practice, enterprise open source is paid for via subscriptions that offer maintained, supported, stabilised versions of software. In some cases, enterprise versions will also come with extended platform and application functionality as well.

With the penetration that open source now has across the enterprise software stack, we know that many application tools, functions and data services today root their DNA in open source. Given this reality, what are ERP vendors and customers doing to ensure they ‘give back’ to the model that has shaped some of the technologies that they use every day?


Commit means code… and more

One important first consideration to bring forward here is that open source contributions generally come in the form of ‘code commits’. Red Hat for example is the biggest code commit contributor to the Linux kernel, which although logical, is also a tangible validation for its position as an open source muscle player.

Contributions can come in other forms. In order for open technologies to enjoy freedom, they also need accessibility. This means that open source needs people who are willing to work on creating or improving user documentation (and international language translation), plus all forms of business administration, marketing and more. Keeping the open ship afloat requires a full crew with a diverse skillset.

What many users don’t realise is that, where they are using tools that are either natively open source or have been developed from open root, simply engaging with the core developer community behind an application and providing user feedback is an invaluable process.

Open source is all about openness, which in this sense means keeping the door open to advancement, improvement and progression; the software team behind any given project or toolset used in the ERP space will never know how truly effective it is unless we, the users, tell them. This open ERP feedback can come in the form of unstructured comments and messages on user forums. Equally, it can come from more structured reports that might include quantitative performance results. It all counts towards open evolution.


The ability to cheaply flex the product into new architectures would answer key questions in any product selection.”

Joe Rodgers / In-sure Services

“Some of the world’s largest ERP and ecommerce platforms are built on open source tech stack so active engagement in developer communities is essential to ensuring end-to-end supportability for proprietary enterprise-grade software. By applying the same open source philosophy to their own products, ERP vendors could create new developer communities making specialist skills more widely available, reducing cost and risk to customers. The ability to cheaply extend, customise and flex the product into new architectures, would answer some of the key questions in any product selection as well as driving the pace of evolution of the products themselves,” said Joe Rodgers, DXC chief technology officer for In-Sure Services.


Open trajectories

What we probably need to remember when discussing open source in this specific marketplace is that ERP starts from an inherently proprietary base. Although all major ERP vendors and their ancillary partners will have a shiny and welcoming open source fascia on their open technologies portal somewhere on their website, fewer of them will be actively giving back to the community contribution model in anything like the way we might see in hardcore Linux development environments.

Where we will see open source ERP toolsets developed is within the auspices of the open source foundations and working groups. Sitting as a formalised project within the Apache Software Foundation (ASF), OFBiz is a suite of ERP-centric business applications flexible enough to be used across any industry. 

This is free software built with a common architecture designed to allow developers to easily extend or enhance it to create custom features. Did we say free? Yes we did; Apache OFBiz is a project that is part of the ASF, which itself is a charitable foundation that produces software for the public good.

“It’s not unusual for an open source enterprise automation suite such as Apache OFBiz to be flourishing within the ASF. Our ‘scratch your own itch’ ethos inspires our community to develop compelling software across a broad range of needs. Many Apache projects originate through hobbyist routes as well as commercial environments – the flexible, business-friendly Apache License 2.0 promotes innovation whilst limiting restrictions around commercialisation,” explained Sally Khudairi, vice president of sponsor relations at the Apache Software Foundation.

“OFBiz was developed as ‘Open For Business’ in 2001, entered the Apache Incubator in 2006 and is used today in Fortune 500 corporations, leading ecommerce brands, and groundbreaking start-ups. Apache projects are available 100 percent free of charge, provide commercial-grade functionality, and are unencumbered by the constraints often imposed by proprietary software solutions,” Khudairi added.


Our ‘scratch your own itch’ ethos inspires our community to develop compelling software.” Sally Khudairi  / Apache Software Foundation

Having now worked in the software industry for 30 years, Khudairi has witnessed the progression path that open source has taken from Microsoft pariah to now become the darling of the current age. She served as the former deputy to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, as head of communications for the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and assisted in the launch of the Apache Software Foundation itself in 1999.

In terms of modules and features, OFBiz is living proof that robust ERP tools can be built in the open source community. It has functions to service customer relationship management (CRM), order management, warehousing, inventory and supply chain fulfilment to name a handful.


Wider tools and turbo-charges

Other tools in this space include WP ERP, a comparatively comprehensive ERP suite that runs from a WordPress dashboard. Designed to serve the smaller to medium-sized business end of the market, it includes functions for HR and CRM management, plus accounting functions too.

Also of note is Odoo, an ERP and CRM software solution written in the Python programming language. Odoo includes functions for accounting and ecommerce as well as capacity requirements planning, inventory management, purchasing and project management.

“The importance of ERP (and also CRM) being open source has never been more critical. The ability for developers to build APIs to ecosystems securely for integration with aged proprietary systems, or backend accounting and stock management platforms for near to real-time stock accounting and fluid movement of products and services actually relies on innovation,” said Dick Morrell, a Linux veteran and open source developer of some 30 years’ standing.


The importance of ERP and CRM being open source has never been more critical.” Dick Morrell / SmoothWall

Morrell explains that typically, proprietary ERP systems have three fundamental tripwires:

1) A small amount of in-house developers who are working to maintain older releases, while building new solutions for retail, means mixed focus on deliverables.

2) An ERP vendor in the proprietary world needs to enforce playground rules to keep a customer in a specific branded wall garden where the vendor is responsible for third party integrations by virtue of a customer paying for those mods, or a systems integration relationship at a commercial level.

3) A proprietary vendor in both the ERP and sales order processing arena will attempt to control the customisation on a use case basis and so stifles the conversation with customers who would otherwise have the flexibility to benefit from transparent code base access.

“Odoo [and] ERPNext are just two open source alternatives [that] all have demonstrated flexibility and speed to major version releases by understanding that harnessing customer need allows the faster evolution of better product,” said Morrell, who is a long-term Red Hat evangelist with a history in ERP customisation which goes all the way back to the very beginning of Sage accounting software and the foundations of custom ERP harnessing 4GL in the early 1990s.

The list of open source ERP solutions is growing and we should also note Dolibarr, Metasfresh, Tryton, BlueSeer, MixERP and EasyERP here.


The bottom line

Our key takeaway in this discussion must be related to users and usability, adoption and cooperation and (as always) the bottom line is a question of costs and remuneration.

If the users like it and its great usability, then it doesn’t matter whether an ERP system is open source or not, as form and functionality will always win the day. If we build open source ERP right, then adoption and cooperation in terms of community contribution will come next. 

How it is costed and paid for is actually the last consideration and that sentiment fits with the wider mindset that drives open source community engagement in the first place. Enterprise open source remains free as in speech, not as in beer… but we can offer you a taste and perhaps your first drink free. But as always, please remember to tip your waiter or waitress.