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The True State of Open Source CRM

I get irritated reading the many poor quality articles about open source CRM. They’re usually written by technology journalists without detailed knowledge of either open source or CRM, by bloggers who just want to get a thousand words and a few thousand hits, or by third parties with a dog in the fight who want to deflect from the emergent threat of open source to their cosy proprietary world. Generally they are inaccurate, poorly researched or misinformed.

It’s worthwhile reflecting on the reasons for the poor quality of information on open source CRM. In the case of the ecosystem of technology sites dependent on the advertising revenue they generate from major vendors, it’s fairly obvious: You don’t bite the hand that feeds you. In the case of bloggers, it’s generally a lack of true understanding about either open source or CRM. Both are complex areas with deep nuances. Surface skimming rarely brings insight to the subjects.

So, I decided to write an authoritative article. Before I start, let me state my background and declare the dog that I have in the fight: I have been immersed in open source CRM for twelve years and I run SalesAgility, the open source consultancy responsible for SuiteCRM, probably the world’s leading open source CRM.

Warning: I like to say what I think. If you are easily offended by subjective opinions, then perhaps you should stop reading now.

Without further ado and with the gloves firmly off, let’s take a look at the contenders:

SugarCRM

Lazy commentators on the subject usually start here and that's a big mistake. SugarCRM abandoned open source in 2013. The Community Edition download that's still available on their website is unloved and unattended. SugarCRM has stated that there will be no further updates to it. Worryingly, it's now also a security risk with multiple vulnerabilities one of which allows an attacker to take control of both the application and the server it's running on. Writers who extol the virtues of SugarCRM Community Edition ought to hang their heads in shame. They are putting users at risk.

I can't write about SugarCRM without a little contextualisation. Uniquely, they have kick-started an industry. Formed in 2004, SugarCRM has attracted nearly $100m of funding. Much of this money went into the foundation of the product which was released as SugarCRM Community Edition (CE). CE was a minimum viable product and was designed to attract people to the paid-for and proprietary editions (Professional, Enterprise etc.) that contained the high value functionality such as workflow, reporting, quotes, forecasts and customer portal that was unavailable in CE. However, CE was a springboard. Designed from the ground up to be extensible, CE provided a perfect platform for third-party developers to extend the product and close the function gap between it, the proprietary versions of SugarCRM and the other major proprietary vendors such as Salesforce and Microsoft.

Ultimately, SugarCRM provided the instruments which would eventually attack them and may well be the cause of their eventual demise as an independent company. CE has been forked multiple times and some of the forks have evolved into fully functional competing products. We'll be looking at these in more detail in this article. The result of these forks has been SugarCRM visitor numbers falling off a cliff. Google Trends suggests that interest in SugarCRM as measured by searches is down by as much as 70% since 2012 with no end in that decline in sight. A company that once preeningly positioned itself as preparing for an IPO will probably end up being acquired and folded into the portfolio of a larger vendor. They are no longer the shining star they once were.

VERDICT

Unless you have masochistic tendencies, CE is best avoided. It will become a target of choice for malicious hackers and script kiddies. There is little in the way of high quality third-party support, little in the way of community support and no support from the vendor. In short, it's dead meat.

Vtiger

An enigma wrapped in a mystery. Discerning Vtiger's strategic intent is not clear-cut but it doesn't feel as if they are committed to open source. The flagship product is Vtiger version 7.x and is available as a SAAS offering only. The open source edition is based on the older 6.5 version and is missing core functionality such as marketing campaigns, module builder and advanced reporting. Version 6.5.0 was launched in July 2016 and there have been no updates since. What is clear is that they have come a short way in a long time since they launched and declared an absolute commitment to open source.

In 2004, Vtiger was the original fork of SugarCRM. It created an interesting spat between the companies and was the reason that SugarCRM changed their license from the Sugar Public License (a variation of the Mozilla Public License (MPL)) to the less permissive Affero GPL. Forking early left Vtiger with a immature core product and a code legacy that they have struggled to catch up with. While the front end is superficially attractive, the back-end admin functions look and feel much the same in Version 6.5 as they did when they forked all those years ago. SugarCRM, with the benefit of nearly $100m to invest, made several profound and highly beneficial architectural changes between 2004 and 2013. Vtiger was unable to avail themselves of any of these improvements.

However, there is no doubt that Vtiger is scaled and is a fully-featured product that delivers the functionality that will enable it to compete with Salesforce, SugarCRM and Microsoft. Nonetheless, you can only access that functionality in the SAAS edition which is not available for download. I can only conclude that they see their future as being as a SAAS vendor, not as being an open source player.

I have looked deeply at Vtiger a number of times since 2004 and never been overly impressed by the code quality or adherence to coding standards. My ambivalence is irrelevant if Vtiger becomes yet another misguided project that abandons open source in search of low-hanging fruit.

VERDICT

If you are searching for an open source product where the vendor has a clear commitment to transparency and openness, then Vtiger is not the product for you. There is no vendor undertaking to maintain an open source strategy and all the latest and greatest code is not made available to the community for download.

If you are embarking on a long-term strategic project predicated on an open source platform, I would not recommend Vtiger as a starting point for the reasons stated above.

SuiteCRM

If you didn't closely read the third paragraph of this article, let me once again state that I have a dog in this fight: My company (SalesAgility) writes and maintains SuiteCRM. The following narrative may be somewhat clouded by my passion for SuiteCRM, the people that write and support it, the community that contributes to it and to open source as a development method and business model.

SuiteCRM is a 2013 fork of SugarCRM Community Edition 6.5.x. It was launched as a direct response to SugarCRM's announcement that they were abandoning open source.

Somewhat uniquely, the SuiteCRM project is loudly and proudly open source. The commitment to open source is prominently published and frequently stated. The project publishes every line of code as open source, always has and has stated that it always will.

SuiteCRM comprises of core SugarCRM, multiple vulnerability and security patches that address the flaws that still exist in SugarCRM CE, and a host of extensions such as workflow, reporting, portal, quotes, products, contracts, search and a plethora of features that stakes SuiteCRM's claim to being a credible competitor to Salesforce, Microsoft and SugarCRM.

Market validation has come thick and fast for the project which is involved in multi-year, multi-language, multi-currency, deeply strategic projects with major global enterprises and international NGO's and is deeply engaged in delivering point solutions for small and medium enterprises internationally.

The revenue from these projects is invested back into developing code which is released to the community as open source. It's a self-fulfilling virtuous circle. The better SuiteCRM becomes, the more traction it gains, the more customers it acquires, the more revenue it generates, the more money is invested in code released to the community. It really isn't rocket science.

SuiteCRM releases major updates twice a year and interim bug fix releases approximately twenty times a year. The active community of contributors, supporters and collaborators stands at approximately 40,000 people and the code is downloaded around 35,000 times per month.

VERDICT

SuiteCRM is the pre-eminent open source CRM project in the market today. It's an active and accelerating project that has a clear commitment to open source, open standards, transparency and community. The code is available from GitHub and from the project site and every line of code published by the project is published under the Affero GPL open source license.

SuiteCRM delivers the functionality found in the major proprietary products and has all the core attributes of a best-of-breed open source project.

If you are embarking on a long-term strategic project predicated on an open source platform, it is by some distance the premium product.

EspoCRM

EspoCRM is a moderately featured open source CRM with a business model of publishing higher value functionality behind paywalls. It is not clear from their website if these paid-for extensions are open source or proprietary. It has a small and not very active community (9 members when we visited during core business hours). The documentation is rudimentary, the user interface is uninspiring and non-intuitive and the reporting and workflow leave much to be desired.

VERDICT

Unclear commitment to open source combined with very low community engagement, primitive functionality in key areas, poor documentation, sub-standard user experience and no clear roadmap all lead us to conclude that this is a project that has a long way to go before we could recommend it for anything other than small companies with non-complex requirements.

OroCRM

It's hard to love these guys. I've spent 15 years downloading and deploying open source software. At one end of the spectrum are the one or two click, drop into your webserver, enter database details and go applications. At the other end are the pick up the phone and call your most pointy-headed geek friend and ask him to to bring his best game plan and install this baby for you. OroCRM is firmly at the latter end of that spectrum and not for the faint hearted. The cynical me thinks that this is a strategic decision made to drive the faint of heart to the SAAS versions.

Eventually I got it installed and quite frankly I wished I hadn't. It's an hour of my life that I won't get back.

Let's look at the obvious deficiencies. There's no demo data so I started by creating an Account. There's nowhere to enter an address. What!! It's a bit more than bleeding obvious that an Account attribute is an address. At least that was my understanding.

Not so here. In OroCRM the address attribute is related to the Contact. So, there's no concept of inheritance. You have to add an address every time.

OK, let's go to Leads. What!! there is no Leads module.

At this point I gave up the will to live.

VERDICT

Where to start? My advice is don't. It's poorly designed and executed. I'm not even going to comment on whether it's open source or not. The first part of any application is not the license. It's function, form and usability. OroCRM fails on each of those.

That the community forum has tumbleweed blowing through the non-existent answers to plaintive questions is another indication of a project that should not merit your attention.

CiviCRM

I have a soft spot for CiviCRM. I always have. If you're a not-for-profit and need a robust platform for managing donors then look no further. That's what it does, that's what it was designed for and that's what it will probably always do.

A true open source project with a great community and real passion and zeal for what they do. There is a space in the world for projects like CiviCRM and long may they flourish.

VERDICT

It's niche and it's good at what it does. If you're looking for an enterprise-scale, fully functional B2B/B2C CRM with all the bells and whistles then this should not be on your shortlist. But if you're looking for donor and stakeholder management for a not-for-profit, then it certainly should be.

ZurmoCRM

We dodged a bullet here. Very early in the days of SuiteCRM we were approached by a person who expressed an interest in buying us. We weren't for sale but we were flattered. We dug a little deeper and didn't like what we saw. If you want to be owned and run by a guy with several convictions and goal time for violence against women then good luck to you.

Zurmo were acquired in 2014 by Gurbaksh Chahal (Google him). Zurmo was an interesting project up to that point with one key differentiator: Gamification – Pavlov's Dog for salespeople. But since being acquired it's pretty much died as an open source project. The last update on Sourceforge was more than 12 months ago. That should tell you all you need to know.

VERDICT

Avoid.

OpenCRX

SugarCRM with $100m of venture capital behind it has a brutal past with regard to the “exiting” of senior executives. There was a “night of the long knives” in 2008 and again in 2009 when co-founder John Roberts departed to “pursue other opportunities”, a frequently used euphemism.

Roberts next rocked up as founder of OpenCRX. Users who were expecting an old pony to repeat old tricks would have been sorely disappointed. Where SugarCRM is clean, appealing and intuitive, OpenCRX is not.

It is open source though and the code is available on Sourceforge.

There's a lack of care, a lack of users, a lack of engagement and a lack of life in OpenCRX.

VERDICT

There's a part of me that wanted to see this project succeed if only to thumb the nose at the money men who drove open source out of SugarCRM. But it hasn't. There's little that's appealing either in activity, presentation or function.

Other CRM applications.

There's a long list of open source ERP vendors who claim CRM credibility.

To my mind they miss the point and they've missed the wave.

Big, all-embracing lumps of software were popular in the 80's and early 90's because it was so damn hard to get systems to talk to each other.

Today, with open and RESTful API's it's a walk in the park. Few CRM projects come without at least one integration requirement and the technical challenges are usually low.

ERP and CRM are distant cousins. They do different things in different ways for different user types and although they share common values, they don't belong in the same application.

Smart buyers will look for best-of-breed ERP and best-of-breed CRM applications and integrate them.

But if you insist on a single vendor solution, there are many of them. But you ain't going to find a list here.

As an addendum, here's some help on how to measure an open source project

COMMUNITY

Before you begin to look at some of the open source CRM products out there, it’s important to understand that open source is not just about code. Equally as importantly it’s about Community. By Community I mean the Community of users who commune in self-sustaining support forums and the Community of technical volunteers who translate language packs, fix bugs, donate code and suggest improvements.

Look for projects with active communities and lots of contributors supporting each other. It's the first indicator of whether a project is healthy or not.

FREE IS NOT THE SAME AS OPEN SOURCE

Many articles conflate free CRM and open source CRM. This is highly misleading. Free is not the same as open source although open source is the same as free.

Many “free” CRM products are clickbait. They are standard proprietary products governed by restrictive licenses and should not appear in articles about open source CRM. Generally they are subsets of fully featured CRM applications. Users can access the reduced set of functions for free, but if they want to do anything complex, it generally resides in the world of paid-for. Examples of “free” CRM include Capsule, Insightly and Hubspot.

What defines an open source product is the license it is published under and the fact that you can download all of the source code. Look for projects that are published under recognised open source licenses. Apache, GPL, AGPL, MPL and MIT are among the most popular. You should also look for “Download” buttons. If you can't download the source code, you are almost certainly not on an open source vendor's website.







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