Open-source e-commerce: The next wave of value for the enterprise

Customers of a large advanced-electronics manufacturing business were having trouble finding and ordering products on the company’s website. The solution? Customer service told them to email their orders to their sales reps, who would then enter them into the site themselves. The email orders were inevitably unclear, leading sales reps to spend endless hours searching for products, clarifying the orders, and inputting the wrong information. Not only that, but top sales reps were spending their time doing basic fulfillment, not selling.

The manufacturer knew this wasn’t sustainable, so it decided to upgrade its e-commerce portal. A systems integrator (SI) vendor recommended a packaged solution that would take two years to build, with a minimum viable product (MVP) of the front-end portal available in eight to ten months. That was just too long. So executives turned to open source for the front end of the company’s e-commerce solution. They established a team of ten people, including five developers, who were dedicated to the project and worked in agile ways, using open source to develop a product inventory, integrations into the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, digital-marketing integrations, and product pages with full ordering capabilities. In about eight weeks, they launched the MVP e-commerce site with page load times of 1.5 seconds—more than five times faster than the company’s existing version.

The frustrations of working with complex legacy architecture is hardly an anomaly in the corporate world, but turning to open source as a solution for e-commerce is. Many large companies have been using open source for years now, though often in isolated areas deeper in the stack. But open-source software (OSS) has evolved to the point where it can provide a broad range of benefits in e-commerce, such as speed, low total cost of ownership, flexibility, and access to talent, to name a few.

While cost savings are an important benefit, the real value of using open source is in acquiring key talent, helping build up an open architecture, and accelerating the culture of speed and flexibility that’s needed to be competitive in a digital world. Being serious about being digital means being serious about open source.

However, to borrow a well-worn phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility,” going the OSS route requires a greater commitment and more accountability from the enterprise. It is not a silver bullet and requires thoughtful discussions about trade-offs and priorities. The benefits of OSS can be claimed only when companies invest in finding and retaining top engineering talent, reduce complexity through better processes, and institute effective security and governance practices.

A closer look at open source

While the benefits of open source are generally understood by many executives, concerns about its applicability in a large corporate setting and an incomplete understanding of the true trade-offs persist (see sidebar, “A look under the hood: Building an OSS product”). For this reason, open source is often dismissed as “something small