Open source alternatives to Microsoft’s widely used SharePoint platform are winning over customers on cost and feature sets.
That’s the view of VARs working with software such as Alfresco, Liferay and Plone. Executives at those firms say the open source options appeal to customers in the government and education sectors, in particular. The channel is becoming a conduit for open source offerings, providing customers a range of services including deployment, customization and integration.
As for services, VARs also have an opportunity to incorporate add-on products to the base open source software. The practice is similar to Google Apps resellers offering unified communications and backup products that tie into Google Docs, the cloud-based office suite.
While SharePoint covers collaboration, portals and content management among other functions, its open source challengers span a similar breadth of capability. Solutions providers give open source more points than SharePoint for supporting a range of integrations and social networking features.
Those features enable providers to deliver sophisticated solutions for customers. And with lower software costs, clients have money for investing in more elaborate projects.
Open source SharePoint alternatives offer cost breaks
In some cases, price considerations factor into an organization’s decision to go the open source route.
Toby Roberts, vice president at Enfold Systems Inc., a Houston-based solutions provider that specializes in Plone, said the open source content management system wins out in budget-constrained environments where license costs are an issue.
“Plone is popular in government and education space,” Roberts said, noting that organizations in other market segments use Plone at the departmental and workgroup levels.
In one government example, the Colorado Department of Transportation conducted a study of SharePoint versus open source solutions and opted for Plone, Roberts noted. Enfold Systems assisted the department with its Plone deployment.
“It typically comes down to the license fee,” Roberts said of head-to-head wins over SharePoint. “We can implement something for a very large organization at a fraction of the price.”
Plone is available via GNU General Public License. Roberts said the dollars a customer saves on software can be employed to create a customized solution.
Enfold Systems, whose founder, Alan Runyan, co-founded the Plone project, provides installation, configuration and customization services. Roberts also cited the opportunity to select from some 1,700 Plone add-on products to meet specific customer requirements. The add-ons, which plug and play with the core Plone product, range from development tools to geospatial software.
Although open source offerings avoid licensing fees, enterprises often purchase support subscriptions to enterprise versions of the software. Vendors such as Alfresco Software Inc. that offer document management, Web content management and collaboration, provide a commercial open source product in addition to a free community edition.
But even with support costs factored in, commercial open source software’s total cost of ownership is still considered to be lower than Microsoft’s product, noted James Heise, director of business development at Appnovation Technologies Inc., an open source solutions provider in Vancouver, B.C.
Open source features attract
Cost, however, isn’t the only plus. Heise said Alfresco is far more customizable than proprietary software. He cited the ability to integrate a Web front end to Alfresco’s enterprise content management back end.
“Compared to SharePoint, it’s just a lot more open in terms of what you can do with it,” he said.
Appnovation focuses on Alfresco, Drupal and SproutCore development. The company also markets its own product, Canopy, which integrates Drupal’s Web front end and Alfresco. Heise cited government as a solid customer for open source.
Social networking features also provide an edge for some open source alternatives.
Chris Stavros, technology strategist at Level Studios, a digital marketing company in San Luis Obispo, Calif., said Liferay’s framework for portals, content management and collaboration provides a better set of tools for social networking. He said SharePoint’s social capabilities -- wikis, blogs and forums, for example -- aren’t particularly sophisticated.
Stavros also gave Liferay Inc. high marks for its integration tools. His company uses Liferays’s APIs and software development kits to integrate the software into back-end information systems such as enterprise resource management.
“Liferay offers a robust set of integration tools under the hood to achieve those sorts of connections,” Stavros said.
Moving toward the front end, Liferay’s content management technology exposes data in such a way that it can be easily manipulated with a rich user interface component using HTML5 or Ajax, he noted.
Stavros said SharePoint works well in an enterprise setting with a heavy investment in Microsoft technology. That said, some customers find Liferay’s social media, integration and other features compelling.
“We definitely see a segment of existing SharePoint customers looking for a better solution,” he said.
John Moore is a Syracuse, N.Y.-based freelance writer, reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This was first published in October 2011