Sirsi-Dynix vs Open Source Software

There was a bit of a firestorm online this past weekend, when an Open Source Position paper distributed by Sirsi-Dynix, and authored by Steven Abram, hit the web. This paper was originally believed to be a “leak”, and was even published on wikileaks before Abrams put a link to it directly from his blog, and wrote an entry outlining why the paper was put forward to begin with. From his blog:

Some have expressed surprise about the position paper. Some call it FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt. I call it critical thinking and constructive debate – something that everyone in libraries should embrace and engage in.

I do not hope to fully outline my thoughts about this here in a single post. Suffice it to say that I think the paper significantly mis-characterizes Open Source software in general, and Open Source library systems specifically. I am currently aware of three different efforts to annotate and answer the recently released, one of which I started in Google Docs in hopes of getting refutations together for the various points brought up in the Sirsi-Dynix piece. There is also an Etherpad collaborative refutation began by Tim Spalding of Librarything, and the Code4Lib group’s version on their wiki.

I’m going to give just a few excerpts here, and brief responses. I respect Stephen a great deal, but even viewing this paper in the loosest sorts of ways, there are just blatantly misleading statements scattered throughout. So, a few thoughts:

Nevertheless, it should be noted that it is rare for completely open source projects to be successful.

This is only true in the same way that saying “it is rare for projects to be successful” would be true. Many things fail…it’s just that in the open source world, you get to see the failures, whereas in a closed/proprietary world you don’t.

It is very unlikely that an open source solution is any less expensive than a proprietary solution. In fact, in all of the data SirsiDynix has collected, we are not seeing quotes that conflict with this assertion. Indeed there are very few green fields in the ILS marketplace. Most libraries already have an ILS and receive upgrades as part of their maintenance contract from us or other proprietary vendors. These maintenance contracts are a small percentage of the initial price.

I do not have numbers at my fingertips, but I feel very, very certain that if you actually calculated TCO in any rational way, open source wins. Why? Because it’s a difference of where you are choosing to put your money…instead of paying for support, the typical library that moves to open source solutions has chosen instead to put its money into personnel, and while short-term the cost structures may look similar, paying for a position is far, far more flexible than paying on a maintenance contract. You can’t get that contract to do other things you might need done, while a technical support position can be repurposed.

Plus, while maintenance contracts are “a small percentage of the initial price”, that doesn’t mean that they are in any way a small amount of money. MPOW is a small academic library, and what we pay in yearly maintenance would go a long, long way towards another staff position.

In many markets, there are major systems in accounting, intranets, e-learning, and so on that must tie in to the ILS. In many cases, open source is still the minority solution because, for example, the number of Linux desktops is meager compared to Microsoft Windows desktops. By choosing a Linux desktop, a user closes the door on some software because it may never be created for or ported to Linux. Add to this the major changes in allied systems that require an adaptation for the ILS and the issue grows exponentially.
So for libraries that choose an open source system, the opportunity to integrate different systems into the solution is limited, at best.

This is just a mess of an argument. Why would anyone knowingly choose any software solution that wasn’t compatible with the remainder of their infrastructure? And the advantage of an OSS solution is that the data is yours, and can be massaged into whatever format you’d like…you don’t have to wait on the vendor to decide to add the connector that you are looking for. This is just _wrong_, and I’m not even sure how you structure an argument like:

Windows is more popular than Linux on the desktop.
Some software doesn’t run on Linux.
Therefore, Open Source ILS solutions are bad for libraries.

What?

Proprietary software has more features. Period. Proprietary software is much more user-friendly.

Proprietary software often does have more features…as an example, Microsoft Word has _thousands_ of features, compared to…oh, Open Office. But Open Office has the 20 features that cover 99% of the use-cases for word processing. To argue that proprietary software has more features that no one will ever use doesn’t strike me as a particularly good argument.

And user-friendly? Again, that’s just a statement with no backing…I’ve used tons of proprietary software that had horrible usability. In my experience, it’s almost always the niche proprietary software designed for very specific solutions (like, oh…library systems) that has the worst usability of all.

I could spend many hours digging through this, but I’ll let the collaborative documents tell the rest of the tale. I completely agree with Stephen that all libraries should carefully examine their needs and resources when deciding on what solutions to move to. But this document paints with far too broad a brush, is misleading at best on many points, and simply fails to any test of accuracy. I understand that this is a sales brochure, but I am disappointed at the tone taken….you can critically evaluate without hyperbolic statements like “jumping into open source would be dangerous, at best.” This is more Fox News than CNN, more USA Today than New York Times. I hadn’t hoped for more from Sirsi-Dynix, but I had hoped for more from Stephen Abrams….whether that is fair or not.

I’ve embedded the Google Doc that I started below, but you should definitely check out both the Etherpad and the Code4Lib wiki to see how a large number of librarians are responding. Not everyone put in their thoughts, but the list of people with access to edit is: Nicole Engard, Chris Cormack, Toby Greenwalt, Kathryn Greenhill, Karen Schneider, Melissa Houlroyd, Tara Robertson, Dweaver, Lori Ayre, Heather Braum, Laura Crossett, Josh Neff, and a few others who have usernames that I can’t decipher. :-)

13 thoughts on “Sirsi-Dynix vs Open Source Software

  1. “Proprietary software has more features. Period. Proprietary software is much more user-friendly. ” Ahem. Knowing, as I do, the issues that our ILS administrator has with getting a straight answer out of Sirsi-Dynix when the shit hits the fan on these “features,” I really wouldn’t choose that point to brag about. it’s only a “feature” if you support it when people try to use it and it goes *boink*. Also, it’s tough to take an anti-OSS argument seriously when it comes from someone employed by an ILS vendor and isn’t backed by actual data. (BN: I have nothing against Abram, he’s a fun guy and nothing but nice so far as I know.) And the opportunity cost of staying with an ILS that doesnt evolve as you need it to – which no one can argue has been the case with nearly all vendor-ILSs and certainly also with Sirsi – is that you mutate your workflows to fit the flawed system, instead of fitting the system to the most efficient workflow. Harroomph to the paper, I say. I’d be happy to read something with more data & trufax with citations, though.

  2. My own dealings w/ Sirsi-Dynix are minimal, and I only know Stephen Abram by reputation through my friends (such as you, Mr. Griffey). All that aside, he is a vendor. It is not in his best interest to promote open source software unless it benefits Sirsi-Dynix. This is simply another example of a paradigm shift for which vendors and entire industries are ill prepared. I appreciate his willingness to have a “constructive debate”, as long as librarians understand from the start that its only logical for him to have this point of view. The paper is what it is: a marketing tool from a corporation that wants to sell you an ILS, not encourage you to build your own!

  3. Wow, I was at Internet Librarian last week, and somehow I resisted the urge to go up to Stephen Abrams and ask him how it was that he was such a brilliant person, but SIRSI is just such a bad system. I know it takes more than one person to run a company, but around here one of our favorite sayings is “SIRSI sucks!”

  4. One of our sayings round here has been “What does that Latin mean? Ex = out of; Libris = library. So let’s get them out of the library!”

    The amount of bugs in the latest major Voyager upgrade in pretty amazing. And it’s continually disappointing to be told that you have to upgrade to the next version to get any fixes they come up with.

  5. I had been successfully avoiding jumping into this mess, but.. oh well, I added my comments (dbs) to the Google Doc, based on my experiences as a Unicorn customer, an Evergreen adopter, a proprietary software developer, an open source software developer, an Evergreen committer… it’s all mixed up, but hopefully it’s a useful contribution.

  6. I thought this comment was interesting: “Most libraries already have an ILS and receive upgrades as part of their maintenance contract from us…”

    We recently “upgraded” our version of Workflows. It is completely different that previous versions, but training costs hundreds of pounds, which our library can’t afford. This works against our productivity, as it is taken us much too long to familiarize ourselves with the brand new software. I find that upgrades with open source software are easier to manage and do not require scads more training to get to grips with upgrades.

  7. I recently attended a SirsiDynix user group meeting and I'd never attended a user group meeting with almost no input from the users. It was painfully clear that SirsiDynix is culturally unable to provide good customer service. With fees for better training, better support and even for simple services, I'm sure we are valuable customers, but I definitely don't feel like a valued customer. The only viable solution is to bite the bullet and switch systems. SD is counting on organisations backing down from that challenge but that will not always be the case; anyone that runs a deep ROI will see the price of the pain that this company inflicts on its customers through its restrictive practices.

  8. I recently attended a SirsiDynix user group meeting and I'd never attended a user group meeting with almost no input from the users. It was painfully clear that SirsiDynix is culturally unable to provide good customer service. With fees for better training, better support and even for simple services, I'm sure we are valuable customers, but I definitely don't feel like a valued customer. The only viable solution is to bite the bullet and switch systems. SD is counting on organisations backing down from that challenge but that will not always be the case; anyone that runs a deep ROI will see the price of the pain that this company inflicts on its customers through its restrictive practices.

  9. I worked for Sirsi for many years and I can tell you that before the merger and them getting rid of the Huntsville office was Sirsi’s best time. We did good work and took pride in what we did. It’s just a shame they did to us what they did. You can blame Vista for what it is now.

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