Is using free software sensible for continuity?

Google recently announced it’s ceasing it’s Message Continuity service.

Message Continuity was an email disaster recovery service that allowed Microsoft Exchange users to backup their email in the Google cloud.  They’ve closed the service to focus on their own Apps.  While this sounds fair enough, it leaves users with a need to arrange other backup methods.  It also reminds us to ask the question: is it sensible to use free applications over which we have little control?

We’ve talked about the pros and cons of cloud services before, but we’re talking here more about the free apps you can get online.  Why pay a fortune for Microsoft Office (or even Microsoft Office 365 which works in a cloud), for example, when you can use Google Apps (for a small charge) or Open Office (for free)?  For most websites, is Dreamweaver, costing hundreds of pounds really a better offering than WordPress software, which is free?

In the past, one might argue that using a paid-for service offers you a higher quality product.  Though many fans argue that Open Office is as good as Microsoft Office, others would argue that’s not true.  Google Apps, however, probably doesn’t get that argument since most seem to believe it really is as good.  However, does the fact it’s free devalue it in any way?

Some might argue that you get what you pay for.  A product that costs money is going to be better cared for by providers, have less bugs, more security and offer high quality upgrades.  However, this is less and less the case: when  big players (like Google and WordPress) provide freebies their reputation is on the line.  A Google App that causes a problem is going to be as huge a deal to Google as it would be to Microsoft.  True, there might be less come back in terms of suing them or seeking compensation for a free product, but by then the damage is already done to both you and them.  So what about security issues?

Cyber security is an ever growing concern for most organisations.  In the UK alone, reported computer crime cost £27bn in 2011 – and one suspects that many organisations won’t report such crime for fear of highlighting an exploited weakness in their systems.   Organisations with concerns about confidentiality, data protection, commercial secrecy or common-or-garden security may feel more comfortable ensuring their information, files and apps are behind a nice secure firewall, but that doesn’t rule out all free apps: just those which cannot be protected by the organisation itself.

The other concern with free products comes from the point with which we began: what if the company providing them simply stops providing them, as with Google’s Continuity Messages service?  Well, this is a concern.  Paid-for are also discontinued, of course – does anyone remember Microsoft Money, Microsoft Liquid Motion, Adobe CheckList or Apple’s iweb?

Things move on and there are no guarantees, paid-for or not, that your favourite product is always going to be there.  (For example, this website started out in iweb but was swiftly moved to WordPress software after Apple announced iweb had been discontinued – a move that, despite the excellent, free software provided by WordPress, cost a lot in terms of staff time and effort to move content from one system to another.)

However, paid-for products are generally discontinued at the end of a contract or simply not renewed, causing inconvenience, hassle and effort – and, in all likelihood, additional costs.  But freebies that are based online or in clouds, such as Google Apps, offer a very different problem.  If the company providing them decides to turn them off, or the company ceases to exist overnight, you get no notice and no time to ensure you can cope without them. You might even lose data and work within them if you haven’t taken great care.

So we have to come to the conclusion that there are many software solutions that are free and worth considering, even by business continuity planners.  But there is a balance to consider between the cost of purchasing a product and the cost if a free product ceases to be useful or available to you.

Once again, it boils down to good risk management and continuity planning…



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