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. :-)


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