When evaluating an open source technology for use in the enterprise, a critical question you must ask, especially if you are new to using open source in a business-critical application, is “How do I know I can rely on it?”

For proprietary commercial software, the vendor will invariably do all it can to represent the product as the most rock-solid piece of technology ever developed, extol the desire of their support organization to bend over backwards to fix your problems the day before they arise. These things may or may not be true, and how you evaluate the vendor’s claims in these areas will greatly impact how you make your decision. You will probably rely on industry reputation, check customer references, look at the company’s history and track record in the press, perhaps start with a pilot implementation.

In the open source world, many of these same techniques for evaluation apply, but they may not be the ones you start with. For example, you may want to first characterize the type(s) of support available to you for the technology you’re looking at – professional open source, stack solutions provider, community support, training, hiring developers, relying on consultants, etc. You also take a look at the community surrounding the technology – if email lists, online documentation, forums, FAQs, etc. look useful, responsive, and have a diversity of participants, that’s a good sign. After all, one of many motivations behind adopting an open source solution might be to give yourself support alternatives if your primary support vendor cannot come through for you. You can also review the release history of the product and evaluate the types and frequency of releases. The transparent nature of open source will allow you to read the product release notes and obtain a clear, unbiased sense of the maturity and reliability of the technology, as well as how responsible the developers are about addressing issues and bugs.

Evaluating the vendor(s) providing services related to the technology is of course also important. These companies may be professional open source firms dedicated to supporting the specific product, a stack solutions provider offering more generalized support for the components the product runs on, or other training/service providers. Here you can apply most of the same techniques you would use with a proprietary software vendor. Finally, you can evaluate the ‘in-house’ and/or consultant-based support options – how you evaluate this will vary depending on the technology and the makeup of your organization.

Does this create more work and more complexity? Yes and no. The benefit is that you will have much greater transparency early in the process into the workings of both the technology itself and the community organized around the techology. These are excellent indicators of whether the solution will be a good fit for you, and may allow you to pare your list of options earlier that you would otherwise. The extra complexity may lay in the fact that this part of the evaluation process occurs before you ever have contact with the vendor’s sales team, so you’ll be relying on your own initiative to navigate the evaluation path. However, with just a little savvy, you should see this effort bear fruit rather quickly.