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May 14, 2013

Open Source Search Myth 5 - Total Cost of Ownership

This is part of a series addressing the misconception that open sounce search is too risky for companies to use. You can find the introduction to the series here; and Part 4, Features and Capabilities, here.

Part 5: Total Cost of Ownership

Total cost of ownership, TCO, is a big deal to large users of search technology. Usually, the component of TCO with respect to search is the license fee; enterprise search was historically an expensive proposition. But in fact there are other major components of TCO including implementation/operations, hardware cost, and ongoing support come to mind.

Walter Underwood, one of the key developers at Ultraseek and later the guy who did the Netflix relevancy contest, once explained the difference between commercial and open source search. Let me paraphrase: 

"With commercial search, you spend a lot of money to license it; then you spend a lot of money to implement it.

With open source search, you download the software for free; then you spend alot of money implementing it."

But there is another big element: how much iron do you need? A few years ago we helped a company switch search platform. Their business was search enabling small-town newspaper archives going back to the 1890s, via OCR'd content. They add tens of thousands of documents - historical newspaper articles - every day. 

The commercial platform they replaced required major expense in new servers as they content grew. Every year.

As it turns out, the ROI for swapping out their old search engine was easy: they needed less new hardware every year than with the old engine. And so much less that the ROI period was less than a year.

A different project we did when we were still doing business as New Idea Engineering involved a comparison between Microsoft SharePoint 2010 and search with Solr. Our customer wanted to know if the switch would, indeed, require fewer servers to do the job. It turns out that it was quite reasonable to replace the 12 servers Microsoft FAST required with 6 or fewer servers running Solr. Half the cost of servers; half the cost of energy; half the cost of maintenance. Like the concept?

Now, I'll agree that LucidWorks - my employer - markets a proprietary search platform based on Solr. And we do not license the product for free. But compared to most commercial platforms, LucidWorks Search is pretty darned reasonable. And you still get the cost savings in energy, iron, and scalability.

Less hardware. Better search. How is the TCO of open source a liability compared to most commercial search platforms?