Freely Supported

One justification that companies often use for purchasing proprietary software is the availability of support. I was recently reminded of this when a project that I work on encountered a bug in the PostgreSQL database server. A couple of the developers worked on creating a minimal test case to exercise the bug, submitted it to the bugs mailing list, and waited.

They didn’t have to wait long. The next morning, the bug report had been examined and confirmed by Tom Lane, one of the lead developers for the PostgreSQL project, and a conversation had developed discussing the implications and approaches to fixing the problem. This also highlighted a solution: the functionality at fault could be disabled with a configuration setting until the problem is fixed.

How many commercial software companies could you hope to receive a similar incident response from? How many of them would provide that service at the same cost that the PostgreSQL project charged (that is, nothing at all)? I suspect that the answer is: not many, if any.

This was a well formatted bug report made by an active member of the PostgreSQL community, which may have had some influence upon its treatment, but would a similarly well formatted bug report sent to a company gain such a rapid response? Certainly you would be unlikely to receive anything like Tom Lane’s frank discussion of the cause.

This case impressed me because it directly affected the project that I work on, but it also prompted me to do a little research on support. Many others have investigated this before and in more depth, but with similar findings.

Back in 2007, Matt Asay, a regular columnist on open source issues for cnet news, reported the results of research into resolution of software problems in open source and commercial projects concluding that good open source projects are likely to be faster to resolve problems than good proprietary solutions.  In a March blog posting, software developer Davy Brion discussed at length the weakness of choosing software based simply on a perception of available support. And in an April blog posting on toolbox.com, system administrator Shane Shields also compared open source and proprietary support, mentioning the lengths that open source developers will sometimes go to to fix your problems.

Good software support is often more a function of the community of users and developers, than the company or group behind the development. Savvy companies are catching on to this by sponsoring or promoting community support sites for their products and by taking part in community forums. For free and open source projects on the other hand, community involvement is their default mode of operation. Some projects are clearly better than others and this is also true in the commercial world. Careful software selection is required, but where support is concerned you shouldn’t assume that you get what you pay for.

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