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'Free' might sound good, but watch out later on


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POSTED: Sunday, December 27, 2009

In this trying economy, folks are always looking for a good deal. In the holiday season we especially see a lot of advertisements touting “;free”; products or services. Now, most of us are not naive enough to understand that nothing is free, but many times, especially when it comes to technology, not paying for a product or service actually results in higher costs. The problem with “;free”; is you don't know exactly what it is you are getting.

Consider the simple example that many of us have come across. Your kid's school/team/social group needs a Web site to raise funds for a trip to another island or some other big event. You have a buddy who builds and hosts Web sites and offers to do this one for free. All well and good, right?

Well, what happens when the Web site goes down and your buddy is out of town or otherwise preoccupied, especially during a heavy donation period? Your Web site is down and can't come back up. You really don't have any recourse, save chewing out your buddy, but that's pretty harsh since he probably started out with good intent and was just trying to do you a favor.

In a nutshell, this is an example of the lack of what's known as a Service Level Agreement (SLA). Typically when you buy a Web hosting or other type of service, the provider gives you certain assurances that the service will be available during defined periods of time. This period usually varies anywhere from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on business days to 24/7, sometimes with specific blocks of time carved out for system upkeep, such as 1 a.m. to 3 a.m., every other Tuesday. The penalty for not providing this level of service is often monetary.

This was often a problem when open-source software first came into vogue. The allure of “;free”; was often used as a selling point. Like the example above, however, software support and maintenance were often lacking. Nowadays, most of the heavily used open-source products have optional support available for a fee.

Software licenses for such products are still free or low cost. But it's usually not the license (or lack thereof) that's going to cause you mission-critical problems down the road. Licenses don't break.

Peace of mind is something else for which many folks like to pay. We love to pick on the big boys of the industry as much as anyone else. It is much more likely, though, even in this difficult economy, that there will be someone on the other end to pick up the phone tomorrow.

Sometimes cliches are established due to the truth behind their message. In this case, “;you get what you pay for”; is apropos.