The worsening IT skills shortage in South Africa should be given serious consideration by organisations planning to take advantage of the perceived cost benefits of open source software. 

That's the view of Karl-Heinz Wessinger from The IQ Business Group's Software Engineering division, who points out that the perception that open source software is "free" is not always correct. Open source is "free" only in so far as it is exempt from the conventional licensing charges attached to platform software.
"Nevertheless, the initial 'free' price tag of open source is undoubtedly enticing to all those who need to adhere to a tight IT budget. In fact, most technology decision-makers will be hard pressed not to be interested in the 'free' alternative that open source offers. However, they need to be aware that with most types of software, administration and support costs overshadow the software licence cost," he adds.
Wessinger says the question of whether open source software is less costly to administer and support than platform software depends largely the availability of resources trained on the system.
"We all know that there's a world wide shortage of IT skills. In South Africa, the situation is far worse and deteriorating as skilled resources are increasingly lured offshore.
"From an open source perspective, the situation is becoming critical.  At present, there are probably five platform resources available for every open source specialist. The result is that the premium we are already paying for skilled resources in the platform software arena is significantly higher in the open source space – at least 25% higher," he says.
So, even if an organisation that chooses to go the open source route is able to find a trained resource, they can expect to pay a hefty premium for these skills.
Another hidden cost of open source that should be considered is the availability of administration tools, and the number of version upgrades and patches that are issued by the developer, he says.
In this regard, open source software may have little if any advantage over proprietary software.
Then there's the issue of warranties: Wessinger notes that unlike platform software, open source software is normally provided without warranty. This means organisations have no recourse should the software malfunction or not perform, and there is also no guarantee of good documentation or support. With platform software, end users have access to direct vendor support, third-party systems integrators and help desks.
Finally, there's the question of training to consider. Wessinger asks: "How is the organisation going to reduce costs if it has to retrain all its personnel to use the open source software? And who is going to foot the bill for retraining existing IT resources in open source?"
He does not, however, believe that organisations should just dismiss open source out of hand.
"Experience has shown that organisations that are very self-reliant with in-house open source expertise, can do very well with open source.
"But the money an organisation may have to spend for technical service, support, training, customisation and testing open source software, may wipe out any cost benefits that could accrue from it being 'free'.  Each organisation should evaluate the benefits of open source from its own perspective," he says.