Maintenance management software comes in all shapes and sizes, including free , open source, and trial CMMS versions. And each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages connected not only to price but also ease of implementation and use.
How can you make sure you get the one that works best for you?
The trick is knowing the differences between free, open source, and trial software.
The first step to deciding between free, open source, and trial software is understanding your options, so let's first clear up any possible confusion.
Definition of free, trial, and open source CMMS software
Before looking at the pros and cons of each, we need to work out some clear definitions.
Free CMMS software
Oddly enough, the definition of "free" depends on who you ask.
For some, the word is directly related to freedom, and software is only free if the user can enjoy the freedom to use it any way they like, easily examine and modify the source code, and distribute both the original and modified versions. Here, free is not about price. It's about liberty.
For the rest of us, free is all about price. If we don't have to pay for the software, it's free.
But this leads to the question: Why would someone give software away for free?
There are a bunch of possible reasons. It might be a passion project. Someone was looking for a new way to do something, built it, and now wants to share.
Or it could be a company hoping to get people into their software ecosystem. If people like the free version, they might upgrade to a paid one. In a lot of cases, the software is free because you're that company's product. For example, Facebook lets you use their software for free because they can then turn around and sell your user data to advertisers. And it's not just social media that works this way. When's the last time you paid for an email account?
Open source CMMS software
It's easy to get confused between free and open source because a lot of open source software is also free. But there are important differences.
The "open" in open source relates to the license, which allows anyone to freely use, modify, and share the software. There's actually a process for becoming officially open source, and organizations can choose from a long list of open source licenses, including ones from MIT, Apache, and Mozilla.
So, software can be free but not open source if you're not allowed to modify or freely share it.
A common feature of open source software is that it's developed and maintained by a dedicated community of supporters. But that's not always the case. There's plenty of examples of open source software that's the result of one person's passion and effort.
Trial CMMS software
Trials come in various forms, but the core idea is the same: try before you buy. It's basically the same as taking a car for a test drive. The other important feature of trials is that they end. You get to kick the tires and take the car for a spin, but at some point, you have to bring it back.
Outside of those two common features, there can be plenty of differences between trials. In some cases, you can only use some of the features during a trial. In others, you can use all the features but only a limited number of times. So, on a trial version of inventory management software, you might be able to create a work order but not save it. Or you can save it but then not assign it.
Pros and cons of free, trial, and open source CMMS software
Now that we know what they are and how they're different from one another, let's look at the pros and cons. In the end, there's no one best solution for everyone. It depends on your situation, needs, and tolerance for each set of drawbacks.
Benefits of free maintenance management software
Here are all the best parts of free maintenance management software.
Best of all, it's free
Which is a great selling point, especially when most CMMS software costs money.
So, what costs are you sidestepping when you get maintenance software free? First, you can skip the implementation costs, which are related to getting your data into the software and getting your team trained on the software. Second, there are no ongoing payments. Generally, CMMS providers use the software as a service (SaaS) business model: instead of buying the software from them, you're subscribing to it. It's the same with Netflix, where you pay each month for access to their service.
Lower "perceived risk," easier to change your mind
And because it's free, it feels easier to get started, and if you don't like it, back out and stop using the software.
A big part of the attraction for free software is the low "perceived risk. " There's a direct relationship between the costs associated with a decision and how much it stresses us out. It's no problem risking a few bucks trying out a new type of candy bar or brand of breakfast cereal. You don't lose much if it doesn't work out for you. But few people would buy a house sight unseen.
Drawbacks of free maintenance management software, i.e. you get what you pay for
Free software comes with drawbacks you need to consider carefully. With free software, you can end up running headfirst into the fact that "There's no such thing as a free lunch."
No support for setup, training, ongoing help when you run into problems
One of the benefits of free maintenance management software is that you don't have to pay for implementation. But the reason you don't have to pay for it is that you aren't getting any.
And in the end, that means you have to develop and deliver it yourself.
What does this look like? All by yourself, you need to load all the data into the software, making sure you're following current best practices for consistency, accuracy, and information architecture. And then, you need to start training the maintenance team.
For even the most basic CMMS software, you need manuals and training videos. And then you need someone to run training sessions for everyone in the organization who uses the software. And not just one set. Because people use the CMMS differently according to their role, you need tailored training materials. For example, one set for the techs and a different one for the CEO.
Free CMMS software but paid databases
Even if you're getting the software for free, you need to pay for your data to live somewhere. Your first option is an on-premises server, which means you're paying for the initial hardware and then ongoing costs for upgrades and replacements. On top of that, if you don't know how to set up and maintain a server, you need to pay someone who does.
Your second option is a cloud-based server, which means renting space from a commercial provider. The advantage is that someone else takes care of some of the IT overhead for you. But it's an additional cost coming from your free software.
Benefits of open source preventive maintenance software
Remember, the difference between free and open source is not the price so much as the ways you can modify and use the software, creating a different set of pros and cons.
Direct access to the source code
If you wanted to, you could customize the software and get exactly what you needed. Every feature would be finely tuned to your exact specifications.
That sounds great on paper, but it's the same as saying one of the benefits of your car is you can open the hood and work on it yourself. That's great for people who know how to fix cars but of zero real value to people who are going to get a qualified mechanic to do all the work anyway.
Safety and security
Open source software tends to be developed by large communities of dedicated volunteers, which can be a big advantage when it comes to keeping the software and your data safe and secure. The idea is that with so many people looking at and working on the software, all the bugs and vulnerabilities get caught sooner. And it's not just when the community first develops the software. The ongoing support and upgrades help keep everything safe and stable throughout the life of the software.
Drawbacks of open source preventive maintenance software
Just like with free software, there are cons that go along with all the pros.
Safety and security
Wasn't this one of the benefits?
It's worth staying on this topic a bit longer. For the same reasons open source is supposed to be safer, it's also potentially more dangerous.
With proprietary software (the kind you pay for), there's a smaller group of developers, making it a lot easier for the company to carefully vet the developers and track who did what to the source code. With open source, because it's so open, it's a lot easier for someone to slip in malicious code, crash your system, and steal your data.
Funding models mean you eventually pay anyway
Just like with free software, there are costs involved. First, you need to pay for setup and training. Remember, it's not just one set of materials, either. Because you have different types of users, you need different types of training.
With more popular open source programs, you can likely find some existing training material developed by the software's community. And there might even be companies that provide training. But, again, you need to pay them.
Let's say you love the software but really wish it had this one specific feature. For example, the free CMMS software lets you set up a PM, but you can't differentiate between floating and fixed or meter- and time-based ones.
How are you going to get the must-have feature?
In some cases, you need to develop it yourself, which is only possible if you have an IT department staffed with the right people and funded to the right levels. How much does it cost you to have the head of IT spend hours coding and testing a new feature?
Your other option is using feature bounties. Post your request on a page like BountySource and then wait for someone to create or fine-tune the feature for you. Here again, you need to pay money. But that's only if you're lucky enough to have someone decide to work on your request.
Benefits of trial inventory management software
Unlike the first two, trial software is a limited-time look at the proprietary software you are thinking about adopting. But just like the first two, it has its own pros and cons.
Get a real feel for the software
Remember the first time you got behind the wheel of a car and tried to drive? That mix of excitement and nerves. Only sort of knowing what you were doing...
Which is strange because the first time you drove a car was likely also the millionth time you'd been in one. In fact, think of all the times you'd already seen someone else drive a car in movies, on TV, and in real life. And for all that watching, you were still not 100% sure how to do it.
It's the same with software. You might have seen online videos and even live demonstrations but doing it yourself is always different. The only way to really know if software is easy to learn is to try to learn it. And the only way to know if it meets your needs is to try to use it. Nothing beats direct experience.
If you want a better idea of how software would work for you in practice, not just in theory, a trial is a great risk-free way to find out.
Get more eyes on the software
Demos are a great way to see the software live and in action. But it can be challenging to match up people's schedules so everyone has a chance to attend. Also, there's a limit to how many people you can cram around a screen.
But many software trials run two weeks or longer, which is more than enough time for everyone on the maintenance team to take the software for a spin. You have a chance to set up some on-demand work orders and preventive maintenance inspections and tasks, and the techs have a chance to work with the software out in the field.
Drawbacks of trial inventory management software
Trials are great, but not without some smaller issues.
Some of it might be dummy data
A good database takes time, which is one reason free software isn't without costs, including the ones for getting your data into the database. Even for a small operation without a lot of assets and equipment, you don't want to spend a lot of your 14 days prepping the database.
So, the CMMS provider might preload the software with a bit of dummy data. That way, you have a chance to try out the software right away.
The issue is you don't get to see all your data and workflows packed in and built out like you would after a comprehensive implementation. But the good news is you get to start playing with the software right away, and you can add in enough of your own data to get a real feel for the CMMS and its features, including asset management, work order and preventive maintenance management, and inventory control.
All good things must come to an end, even a CMMS software trial
It depends on the provider, but no matter how long the trial is, it eventually ends. To get the most of your trial and make sure it doesn't feel like it ended too soon, it's important to plan a bit ahead.
Make sure you have an idea of the specific features you want to try and the maintenance workflows you want to set up. It might be a good idea to create a checklist to make sure you cover everything.
Also, make sure you coordinate with other key members of the team. Don't start the trial right when your most-trusted senior tech is taking a week off for vacation. You want the right people to have enough time with the software.
And make sure you have a reliable contact at the CMMS provider in case you have any questions. Remember, even the easiest-to-use CMMS software comes with training, so it's perfectly natural for you to have questions during the trial. When you have someone at the provider who's able to walk you through any hiccups, you get a lot more value out of the trial period.
If you're looking to make the move from paper and spreadsheets, now's the time to reach out to CMMS providers and get the conversation started. They'll be able to explain your options and help you find the one that works best for you.
Once you've narrowed your list, you can set up a software trial, kick the tires, and take some data out for a spin.