By David HM Spector

you read these days in the technology press are stories of open source
(especially Linux) and how it’s practically taking over the world. From
Web servers and clusters through open source PBXs and MySQL Databases, it’s

a good technologist you probably even have Linux machines in your house that
you use to keep your skills up to date. You see lots of potential, you’ve
waited patiently for management to wake up and smell the open source coffee,
and you even can think of some great test deployment opportunities but nothing
seems to be happening.

How do
you get open source systems in the door? Like starting any new venture, it’s
all in the sales pitch.

Sales pitch?
Yes, a sales pitch. Bringing any new system into an established organization is
a matter of selling the idea. And, in order for any new sale to happen, you
have to have a solution to a problem that 1) works as well as whatever the
customer (in this case your boss) is using now, 2) offers some benefit that the
existing system doesn’t have, such as lower price, or cost of operation, and 3)
is supportable in the long term with a provable potential for a Return on
Investment (“ROI”) that is greater that what’s in place now.

How do you know if open source is a good idea for your business?

open source systems—lets use Linux and the MySQL database
as our straw-men—into an organization is (and should be) a lot harder that
saying “but everyone else is doing it.” Any competent manger would
respond pretty much like your mom did when you tried that as a kid (“if
everyone else were jumping of a bridge…”). The best way to make a
convincing argument is to do your homework and make saying “no”
harder than saying “yes.” And in any business that means appealing to
the bottom line.

technologists, business people generally people don’t
think about functionality as a first order of business, but rather about cold
hard numbers. The fact that a technology is “cutting edge” or—even
worse—”cool” is not an argument you want to use; cool is a term
better suited to the marketing department than the CFO’s office. When you want to
get a business person to act, ask yourself: How does something we do affect the
two most important letters in the Business-person’s alphabet: “P” and
“L”: Profit and Loss.

If we
stick to our example, and you wanted to replace your company’s current proprietary
server operating systems and database software you need to determine how much
they cost to run now. How much more profit could be added to the bottom line if
this expense—the annual cost of the OS and DB licenses—would be reduced if you
could convince the company to make the switch?

want to find out the following:

  • How
    much does the current OS cost per server? Are there per-user costs too?
  • How
    much is the base cost for the DB software?
  • Is
    your company paying extra for the number of concurrent connections to these
  • Is
    your company limited in the number of databases or tables you can have?
    (Believe it or not, at least one major database company makes you pay by the
  • How
    many DBAs support your databases, and how much are
    they paid? Can your current DBAs manage MySQL
  • How
    much time and money will it cost to convert the data?
  • Are
    there costs associated with converting any of your customers that might come up
    because of this proposed switch?

you’ll want to figure out what I call The Three C’s: Capability, Cost, and

  • Compatibility: Can the new (Linux/MySQL) system
    handle the amount of data and the number of transactions the old one does? Can
    it handle the project growth you need?
  • Cost: Linux and MySQL are technically free (i.e., you can
    download them) but you don’t want to be on the hook for 24×7 support, What will
    it cost to get the same (or better level) of support from one of the major
  • Coverage: What are the on-going costs to
    support this new regime? DBAswho
    need retraining and/or recertification? What about yourSysAdmins? Is the new system so much easier to use
    that there’s a possibility of a headcount reduction (Yes, it’s unpleasant, but
    lets face it, it’s a fact of life and always makes a system easier to sell)? If
    so, that’s a big win.

if you’re still in the running at this point, it’s time to look around and see
who else is using the open source systems you’re suggesting. This is the one
time the “but everyone else is using it” argument can be used; especially if they are your competitors or
other comparable businesses in your industry. Extra points if you can show how
much money they’ve saved.

Writing the business case

matter if you are trying to bring in an open source database or some other
piece of software, when you’re writing the business case itself it pays to be
short and to the point. Nobody likes to read long documents; keep it to 2-4
pages and cover the basics:

  • Who
    are you?
  • What’s
    the problem/pain-point you’ve identified?
  • What’s
    the proposed solution?
  • What
    are the advantages over the current solution?
  • What’s
    the impact (cost to implement, cost savings over the old system, etc)?
  • What
    comparable businesses to yours have also benefited from doing this?
  • What
    are the next steps?

If you
must use PowerPoint, try to follow Guy
: 10slides, fewer if you can swing it; the
whole presentation should take no longer than 20 minutes; and use nothing smaller than a 30
point font
. (Guy is
one of the best VCs in the world and has great advice not only on startups but
how to champion internal projects as well)

ever mechanism you choose (short paper or PowerPoint), the idea is to keep the information at the
tactical level; you don’t want to drown your audience in implementation details
or bore the them with a long presentation, and most importantly make sure that you with your in-depth knowledge of the
situation you are trying to improve, are the center of attention. The paper or
slides should set the stage for what you talk about. In PowerPoint in
particular, keeping the font large keeps you from packing too much information
on the slides.

once you’ve made a convincing business case, as an agent of change, you need to
be prepared for any number of anti-open source arguments. Some of the most
common ones (along with reasonable and provable rebuttals) are listed in Table A:

Table A

Common anti-open source argument

Reasonable Response

“serious business” is using open source

competitors, such as <list of names> have seen a
YY percent savings. Other large companies using this solution are…

the Gnu Public License (GPL) “force us” to give away our source
code or products?

a common misconception; such a scenario would only apply if we tried to sell
software based on the GPL’d code written by others
without including that original GPL’d software with
our distribution.

source software is buggy, our current vendor provides fixes.

studies, including ones sited here on CNET Networks
show that, in general, opens source software has a defect rate that is far
lower than that of traditional commercial software. The hallmark of most open
source development efforts is the speed with which bug-fixes are applied,
tested and distributed.

contrast, certain well-known OS vendors have had major security bugs linger
for upwards of five years without being fixed, even across major platform

support it?

are X companies who offer 24×7 support of the product; the net cost of which
is lower than our current costs. <list of comparable>

we have works fine, it will cost us more to switch

prepared to discuss a 1-, 3- and 5-year cost analyses of your proposed
solution showing the savings.

business people are not looking for new ways to spend money; they’re looking for ways to save money.

sure you are engaging in a dialog; the best thing that can happen when you are
pitching an idea is that you get a lot of questions and feedback. If there are
valid objections to your proposal, don’t be discouraged, take notes, and give
whomever you’re pitching a deadline by which you’ll have answers to their
concerns. And always follow up. Sometimes it takes more than one try to seal
the deal.

bottom line on making the case for open source software is just like making the
case for any business enterprise: make the best pitch, and give solid business
reasons to make the switch, and you are sure to get your project approved.