by Rakesh Sharma
Published on 25 May 2011
All of us have a bit of open source in our lives, whether it is in that Android smartphone or the streaming music application on our MP3 player or iPod. Open source development is kind of a big deal right now because it is a streamlined, efficient and cost-effective way to develop application. What's more, it allows you to harness crowd power for free!
Most applications that we have reviewed, so far, have been proprietary. This means that the vendor invests in manpower and infrastructure to devise and code the software. This investment is translated into software costs for you.
What Do I Get Out Of Open Source Software?
Cost and crowd sourcing implications aside, I asked Ned Lilly, CEO of XTuple.com, more about the perceived benefits of an ERP solution. He zeroed in on three key advantages of commercial open-source ERP: affordable (because they cost significantly lower than other solutions), flexible (because you have the source code, you can configure and customize the solution to pretty much all of your needs) and free and continuous support in the form of a distributed development army of volunteers across the world.
Although they own the code for XTuple Lilly and his team chose to distribute the core PostBooks edition of XTuple to make it more accessible (and adaptable) for users around the world. According to Lilly, the strategy has paid off. "Our community of users (free and paid) help us continue to enhance the product (from a quality perspective as well as new features)," he says. This is in addition to translating the product into 25 languages and localizing the business software for implementation around the world.
Enough said about the benefits, though. How does open-sourcing their code base translate into benefits for the customer.
Lilly says they try to make as much material available publicly as possible - documentation, videos, online training classes. In addition, for those who wish to develop add-on components, work can be done in a graphical screen editor (which is embedded in the application). "For the deeper-dive programmers out there, they will find a wellspring of material to support more advanced efforts - including rich APIs, and a variety of other powerful tools," says Lilly.
Working With An Open Source ERP System
Flexibility seems to be the key with XTuple.
The solution follows the Linux model of open source. This means that you can either download a free version of the ERP system or opt for one of the several commercial versions: standard, project, manufacturing and enterprise. The differences between the basic and advanced versions are detailed in a comparison table.
The free version can be used for basic accounting, CRM, sales, purchasing, and lightweight inventory, manufacturing and distribution. The commercial versions add more advanced features for larger companies. It can run on any server, public or private and can be upgraded to any commercial version by running a basic script. In addition, it runs on multiple mobile clients as well.
Since the software itself is free, you can pretty much use it for any purpose. And, what's more Lilly says "they don't care." According to him, the free version can be hosted on any private or public cloud. Alternatively, XTuple will set up a managed-service provider for you on Amazon's EC2 service. Incidentally, this was the same service that suffered a cloud outage recently! Jokes apart, the cloud solution includes standard modules including products, inventory, schedule, purchase etc. Each module corresponds to a particular functionality within the system. And, if you are already familiar with ERP apps, you should already know that each functionality is a collection of documents. In XTuple, each of these documents needs to be "posted" to move forward in the business cycle.
Because it is an open source solution and benefits to a large extent on support and contributions from the developer community, XTuple has a community section where you can work with queries about the software and, also, contribute to its development.
XTuple also has an array of add-on features that can be tagged onto the main product. Lilly cites the example of a fixed asset add-on, which allows for management and tracking of fixed assets, built by a community member in New Zealand. In keeping with the open source philosophy, the basic version is free. However, Lilly says there is a commercially-licensed version that adds support for depreciation schedules and full integration with the general ledger.
The Basics: What Does It Look Like?
ERP applications can be complicated beasts; However, XTuple does a fine job of integrating graphical user interface elements into what could essentially have been a command line interface solution. So, there are three basic interface elements that display options. Instead of typing commands or navigating through menus and sub menus, the folks at XTuple have included shortcut GUI elements at the top to enable users to navigate to the respective menu options easily.
Is Open Source Support Any Different?
Yes and No.
Open source support consists of the same formats, features and avenues that you would normally find in any product support structure. So, XTuple has a plethora of documentation and videos to get you started off and move onto advanced levels for the product. As I mentioned earlier, they even have a community forum in the main interface. Support, in this case, is much more extensive and feedback-based. This is because support itself is a trigger for new development. Also, support is a function of problem-solving in this case. A developer chooses to offer product support for free because he/she believes in it.
Enough said, about the altruism of open-source support, though. Altruism, as we know, can only get you so far!
There's a lot to be said for the other, more intensive, commercial support, when you can call up someone in the middle of the night and get product help. XTuple offers you the other kind of in-person support as well, including a network of local partners. In addition, they have a custom deployment team which will help you customize your solution and get up and running without minimal hassle.
Is It For You?
Most definitely. If you are a cost-conscious small business in dire need of a free basic ERP solution, then XTuple is definitely for you. Considering the product's functionality and features, one would assume that it would be expensive. Again, considering the fact that XTuple is free, I guess it's a steal!