In 1966 science fiction writer Robert Heinlein leveraged a 1930’s business adage, turning it into the iconic literary acronym TANSTAFL (aka ‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’) and making it a centerpiece of his seminal work entitled ‘The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress’. While you may enjoy a discourse on the book another time, our focus here is not the consideration of a work of fiction, but rather how TANSTAFL may, or may not apply in the case of today’s free ERP software market.
Caveats of free ERP software
From both research and educational perspectives free ERP systems can be a great way to learn about the operating vagaries of complex software systems; particularly given today’s access to cloud-based platforms. In this environment, sophisticated systems can be turned upside down, tinkered with, or blown up entirely, with little negative impact other than the potential of wasting installation time on systems that may offer neither complete documentation, nor direct support. However, in the commercial world, time is money and any ERP technology based on a free pricing model tends to offer a framework for processes at best, or time-engulfing black hole at its worst.
Recommended reading: How to calculate ERP ROI – the 5 stages
Beyond these caveats, free ERP software systems are rarely without a financial cost, since these platforms require the same implementation, configuration and maintenance expenses as any other costed variant. Secondly, open-source or free systems can experience irregular performance results due to an understandable lack of infrastructure investment behind the product. The point here is simple; just because a system is ‘free’ it doesn’t necessarily follow that the product will be provide good long term value.
Having said all that, there are some particularly good products on the free ERP market, with three of the better choices discussed below:
On the lower-level of the cost curve ERPNext represents one of the more innovative development shops among today’s crop of open source ERP developers. The user interface is particularly simple and clean, and many processes appear to be quite intuitive and straightforward. The platform is free for when self-hosted and the only downside is that the system’s scalability is somewhat limited within the ‘free’ price bracket, but for small enterprises ranging from $0 to $2 million gross, it will get the job done with a minimum of fuss.
2. OpenBravo ERP
At the mid-level OpenBravo comes to mind as a solid and quite scalable approach to the reduced cost promise of web-based ERP. The system is modular and three variants are available including a free open source option, followed by a mid level system costing $4500 annually, and an entirely fleshed-out enterprise level option leveling out at $22k per.
Finally, at the ‘big dog’ level of free ERP, iDempiere offers a highly-sophisticated code base, clever user interfaces, and deep reporting capabilities. Although the system is open-source and free, to get the most out of the technology you should already have a well-trained IT group ready to handle implementation and configuration, backed up by one or more third-party ERP consultants for support. Depending on the scale of the target enterprise, costs to get the system running efficiently can be as low at $5k, and at the upper end, as much as $250k annually.
Product and pricing information correct as of September 2015.