There's a lot of mythology around open-source software — software that is freely distributed with the source code. Some of these myths favor open source and some are against it. The thing they all have in common is that they can distort your selection of the best software for your needs.

Here are some of the most common open-source myths and misconceptions.

1. Open source is free.

Open-source software may be available for free, but that's not the same as saying there's no cost to use it. If you're going to run your business on it, there are costs, and they can be substantial.

The primary determinant of how close open-source software is to truly free usually comes down to the size and complexity of the package. Since CRM solutions tend to be complex, you're probably going to have to spend money on open-source CRM.

Sometimes you'll spend that money up front. Some open-source CRM vendors , such as SugarCRM Inc ., sell more complete packages in addition to offering their basic products as free downloads. In these cases, the basic package may be free, but they could lack important features.

But the real cost of open source is support and customization. For example, Centric CRM (now Concursive Corp. ) charges a minimum of $250 per seat, per year for basic maintenance and support. If you want full support for Red Hat Inc .'s high-end Enterprise Linux , complete with quality-of-service guarantees, it will cost you $2,500 per year for an unlimited license. Similarly, the highest level of support for the MySQL AB open-source database costs $5,000 per year.

The third consideration is customization. Most CRM packages, open source or not, will require a certain amount of customization to meet the needs of the organization. That often means employing either an in-house programmer or a third party to work on the software.

Of course, operating systems and databases are big, complex programs that can require a lot of support. Simpler programs require less support, and in many cases have no support costs at all. For instance, fairly complete suites of user-level, open-source software might include: the office suite, the Firefox Web browser, the Thunderbird email program, the GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program) graphics software and several dozen other programs that never require so much as a penny for support or anything else.

It's possible to use major applications without paying a penny , but most businesses find that for the big stuff, it's worth paying someone for support.

2. Open source means Linux.

Although the Linux operating system is the best known open-source product — and many open-source applications are written first, or even exclusively, for Linux — open source is a lot more than just Linux. Some open-source software is written for Windows first and some of it is never ported to Linux. Most other applications exist in both Linux and Windows versions. You don't have to use Linux to use open source, as millions of people prove every day.

3. There's no support for open source.

There's quite a lot of support for open-source software, but some of it functions very differently than support for commercial software. Basically, popular open-source programs give you more options for support.

Some of the most important support options are Internet newsgroups and forums where users gather to exchange information. Most open-source CRM vendors maintain forums for their users. You can get very quick help there, especially for common programs and common problems. Of course, this works with commercial software too. But in general, the newsgroup support for open-source software seems to be better developed than for the commercial products.

Another source of support are the developers' Web sites. Often they feature manuals, tips and fixes that will answer most of your questions, as well as tutorials to help you use the software.

4. Open source is less functional.

There's a tendency to regard open source as "toy" software. In fact, a lot of open-source packages exceed the functionality of equivalent commercial software. In some application categories, the most used product is an open-source product.

For example, Apache is the leading Web server. MySQL, the database used by many open-source CRM programs, is a leading embedded database (a database used in other applications) and is used by thousands of applications and Web sites. This very article was written using Writer, the word processor in's office suite. Compared to Microsoft Word, Writer has added functionality and ease of use, such as in setting up style templates.

Then there's PostgreSQL , a powerful relational database system that compares favorably with DBMSs (database management systems) from companies like Oracle Corp. and Microsoft. Open-source databases like PostgreSQL and MySQL are used by thousands of companies to support even large and sophisticated applications. That said, it's true that open-source applications usually aren't designed for the absolute high end of the market. Most of the CRM packages, such as CentricCRM and SugarCRM, are aimed at small- to medium-sized enterprises, because that's where the vast majority of potential users are.

5. Integrating open source and Windows is very difficult.

This is a Microsoft favorite. Microsoft has been running a series of ads claiming that open source (i.e., Linux) is hard to integrate with commercial software — notably, Windows. It makes a good talking point but by and large isn't true. A lot of open-source software integrates seamlessly with Windows and its applications, such as Excel and Outlook. Some of the software requires tweaking, but the tweaks are usually minor.

This isn't limited to open-source software; using data in different programs often requires some conversion effort. Even some Microsoft programs need to be tweaked between versions. For example, Microsoft Office 2007 uses a new file format, making a special utility from Microsoft required for older versions of Office to read the files it creates.

Remember that open-source authors have a major stake in making their programs work with Windows, just as commercial software authors do. Most of them put a lot of effort into it.

6. Integrating open source and Windows is dead easy.

The opposite opinion, fiercely held by some of the more extreme proponents of open source, is that integrating open source is an absolute no-brainer. This is as untrue as Microsoft's version. Or, more correctly, it's wrong often enough that you'll have all kinds of problems if you blindly follow it. If you want to bring data over from an open-source program into Windows, or vice versa, you should check for possible incompatibilities. Most of the time you won't find any, but sometimes there are differences in data formats — even "standard" data formats — or other areas that can cause problems.

While there are some things that flat-out won't work, most of the time it's fairly simple to make open source and Windows software work together. However, you should learn the "gotchas" and allow for them. One classic example is importing and exporting charts and graphs created with a spreadsheet or database graph function. These are notorious for not looking the same when they're brought across, whether you're transferring to or from open source, or even to another commercial spreadsheet program like WordPerfect's Quattro Pro. Generally, the easiest way to fix the problem is to import the raw data and use the program's own graphing function to re-create the chart.

7. Open source is more secure.

Well, no. Open source has some distinct advantages when it comes to security, but it's no guarantee that a package is secure. This myth came about because the "bad guys" tend to attack the most popular programs. So long as those were commercial programs, that's where the criminals focused their attacks. When open-source programs became more well-known, they started coming under attack too. The Firefox open-source Web browser serves as an example; as it grew in popularity, the Net newts focused attacks on it, as well as commercial software like Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

The big mistake is to assume that because a program is open source you don't have to worry about security. The truth is you always have to worry about security, whether your software is open source or commercial. Also, there are certain kinds of attacks that don't depend on the underlying operating system or even the particular application. CSS (cross-site scripting) attacks are a good example. The AJAX architecture, which is used by several of the newer CRM programs, is particularly vulnerable whether the Web application is open source or not.

8. Open source is less secure.

This is another myth with Microsoft backing. It simply isn't true. When it comes to security , the major advantage of open-source applications is that there are more eyeballs on the code. Because the source code is freely distributed with the applications, anyone can find, report and even fix bugs. A lot of people do, and it tends to happen very quickly. Even before the development team for the open-source product acknowledges the bug and announces the fix, there are likely to be several third-party fixes circulating in the newsgroups and forums. And those third-party fixes are quickly tested and evaluated by other knowledgeable users.

With commercial software, on the other hand, you're at the mercy of the software company. It may take the company weeks to admit there is a hole, much less fix it. At the very least, you can say that open-source software, as a class, is no more vulnerable than commercial software.

9. Open source doesn't scale.

There was a time, seven or eight years ago, when this was true of most open-source applications. It was especially true of the Linux operating system. However, it's not true any more. In general, open-source applications are at least as scalable as their commercial counterparts.

Of course, applications — both commercial and open source — differ in how far they scale, and it's very difficult to generalize. In the case of open-source CRM, the packages aren't designed for very large deployments — yet. One of the characteristics of open-source software, from Linux to CRM, is that it creeps upward over time as developers add more features and rework the software for larger and larger enterprises.

10. Open source is hard to use.

This is another hangover from four or five years ago. The first wave of open-source software was mostly written by experts (OK, geeks) who assumed a comparable level of geekdom on the part of the users. Much of the software (Apache, for example) was oriented toward programmers and network administrators and not toward individual users. Especially with the Linux applications, you often had to be comfortable with the technology in order to get the applications up and running. It wasn't impossible, as thousands of users proved, but it wasn't slip-the-disk-in-and-go.

That has changed radically as the open-source community has developed. Today, a lot of open-source software is as easy to install and use as the best commercial programs. Developers are paying more attention to user interfaces and hiding the complexity. Open-source developers have put a lot of effort into making their user interfaces and data formats as Windows-like as possible. That's one of the reasons users can painlessly switch back and forth between and Microsoft Office; the interfaces differ in only minor ways.

One reason this myth persists is that Linux, which to most people is still the touchstone for open source, is different from Windows, or even Unix. If you insist on trying to do things the Windows way on Linux, you will have problems. The other thing that keeps this myth alive is that open-source software, and again especially the Linux operating system, often gives you much finer control over what's going on under the covers. That means more decisions for the users. In most cases you can simply ignore these extra choices, but they are there, and they bother some people.

So given all that, is open-source software right for your company? Actually, that's the wrong question. It's like asking if Microsoft or Oracle or any other brand of software is what you need. The real question is: What do you need done? This is especially true in a category as diverse as CRM. Once you determine your business's needs, you can go looking for the software to accomplish them, taking into account price, performance and features. Just make sure you don't write off open-source software based on myths.