When or When Not to Use Open Source LMS?

Posted on : February 22nd, 2010

Oh! You love Microsoft! – this is what a client’s IT Manager commented after looking at technology requirements sheet of our Wizdom LMS in a presentation last week (It’s built on .Net, and uses Windows Server, IIS, & MS SQL/Oracle as back-end platform). The presentation than briefly turned into a debate between open-source and proprietary systems.

Now, this was not the first time when someone asked me to compare open source vs. proprietary systems, and I am sure it won’t be the last. So I thought I will try to be as objective as possible (even though we sell proprietary LMS) and present how I see open source vs. proprietary LMS debate. So here goes ..

I neither love nor hate proprietary or open source systems. Our decisions to adopt a particular technology or platform either for development or internal use is governed by what works best for our customers and for us. For example, we use Microsoft platform for Wizdom Web, but use Linux based servers for our network management. We use Wizible (a proprietary tool) for project management, but use Bugzilla (open source) to manage internal QA process and WordPress (open source) for blogging.

So did we choose these open source technologies because they provided source code and theoretically we could modify these tools? Or did we choose them because they were free?

No, we chose them because they were the best fit for our requirements (and we have never felt the need to modify source code inspite of having in-house development team). Similarly, we chose proprietary technologies that we use because they were the best fit (read proven, robust, scalable, and with clear road-map that mapped to our growth needs) for us or for our customers

How about open source vs. proprietary LMS’s?

Questions one should evaluate –

  1. Is my organization practically ever going to setup an IT team to manage or customize the system?
  2. Does the future road-map of open source system map with my industry/domain growth needs?
  3. Can I manage without active support?
  4. If I am getting the open source system customized, will it still be able to support enhancements that will be made to the system in future (remember with open source systems the development community would not know how you have customized your system, and hence won’t make future enhancements that may fit the customized LMS)?

I generally recommend that if customer’s LMS needs are such that they can be met by out-of-the-box product, and if they have an IT team or access to pool of programmers (such as students) to manage and support the system then it makes absolute sense to go for an open source LMS.

However, if you are an organization who wants LMS to become integral part of talent development plan (read easy integration with ERP’s/HRMS’s, usage in competency management, skill gap analysis, succession planning etc), or if you are getting the system heavily customized, or if you don’t want to setup a dedicated support team for LMS then seriously consider proprietary system that best matches your usage scenario.

I raised the question of domain needs above, because most of the open source LMS’s have been designed with education domain in mind and their growth continues to be influenced by the needs of the same domain. This can be easily ascertained by looking at the terminology used in demo sites, and by going through future road-map of open source LMS’s. So in my honest opinion, they are not the best fit (not in their current form, and not atleast with next couple of releases) for a medium to large size corporate implementation.

Now, the million dollar question – How do Open Source & Proprietary LMS’s compare on Cost Front?

Assuming that open source LMS matches your objectives and organizational structure, then yes, if you have small to medium sized implementation then certainly open source LMS’s (even if moderately customized) are much more cost effective compared to licensed proprietary systems.

However, if you have medium to large scale implementation, then the license price of the LMS itself is not so significant component of the entire implementation (or atleast not so significant component with our and many other good LMS’s license prices).

Given below is a case in example, where we implemented Wizdom Web for 7,500 users for a client that’s spread across the country. I have compared this implementation with a popular open source system (OSS), and I have assumed certain efforts for OSS customizations based on my understanding of that system (Note: Costs are approximate, and currency has been converted to USD for wider audience reach).

Open Source Vs. Proprietary LMS Cost Comparison

Open Source Vs. Proprietary LMS Cost Comparison

 Note: Common Customizations- Reports, UI Customizations. Additional Customizations for OSS- Categorization & Assignment of Courses Based on Department/Location, Configurable Work-flow based Enrollment Approvals

Given below is a graphical representation of total cost of ownership (TCO) over the life of LMS license.

Open Source Vs. Proprietary LMS Cost Comparison

Open Source Vs. Proprietary LMS TCO

 As you can see, over a period of time costs converge and can actually be more for OSS depending upon support & enhancement requirements. For bigger implementations of over 30k users, the license cost is even less of a factor, and in such cases the most critical factor is how robust the system is, how well the LMS partner can support you throughout the LMS life cycle, and what is the proposed road-map of the LMS system and whether that aligns with your domain needs or not.

So this how I see open source vs. proprietary LMS debate. I would love to receive your criticism and feedback.


Manish Gupta

Mr. Manish Gupta is the CEO and co-founder at G-Cube Solutions- an eminent e-learning products and services company. He holds expertise in different domains including Business Management, Consulting for e-learning activities, sales and marketing for diverse industrial domains. He loves reading, jogging and exploring spiritual things.

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