Four of the top ‘free’ ERP systems on the market

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In 2017, we researched several free ERP systems that were open source (OS) or free to download and use. Consequently, we identified four of the best free ERP systems on the market. Now, two years later, we’re going to see how those players are doing, what enhancements have or haven’t emerged, and whether continued interest is warranted.

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. Free ERP allows businesses the opportunity to 'test drive' the impact of an ERP, so to speak. Recent ERP research detailed that the leading reason for implementing ERP is to increase efficiency, now businesses can accurately assess whether their system will help them meet business goals. 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.

Use this ERP pricing guide to understand ERP pricing models and compare real ERP costs

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 provide good long term value.

Having said all that, there are some particularly good products on the free ERP market, let’s check out our original top free ERP systems.

1. ERPNext

At the lowest tier, ERPNext represented one of the more innovative shops among the cluster of open source ERP players. The original user interface was particularly simple, and many of the system’s processes appeared to be quite straightforward. At the time the platform was ‘free’ for those who wanted to self-host the platform. The original research suggested that the only downside was that scalability needs were limited at the ‘free’ level. Nevertheless, for small enterprises, the platform did it’s the job effectively.

2. Openbravo ERP

At the mid-level OpenBravo was seen to be a solid solution for mid-sized companies. Its primary upsides related to the system’s initial cost, along with the fact that the platform allowed users to experience web and/or cloud-based ERP from the outset. Additionally, the system was quite scalable, thereby providing a cost control double-whammy.

3. Odoo ERP

Odoo offered a particularly intriguing value since it offered ‘…two ways it could be operated’ on the open-source tier. The approach focused on a cloud value providing the ability to provision 50 users or less. The second approach offered a source code value, thereby allowing the user to tweak the system’s base code as desired.

4. iDempiere

At the high end of the free ERP tier, iDempiere offered a particularly dense code base, effective user interfaces, and comprehensive reporting. However, although the system was open-source, in order to leverage the technology most effectively the user was encouraged to have a clearly educated IT group available to deal with any implementation and configuration processes, backed up by a cadre of third-party ERP consultants.

Disadvantages of free ERP

Let’s face it, enterprise-scale ERP platforms don’t exist because they’re impressive bits of software, but instead, exist to put more money on the user’s bottom line if properly utilized. Nevertheless, regardless of how clever you are, and how simple a system may appear to be, there’s always going to be a higher-than-normal degree of risk relating to any freeware business technology.

This assertion applies in triplicate when it involves an ERP platform, since resources-based platforms not only alter operating processes but over time, they also alter the way that workforces behave. For example, a simple manual process such as creating an invoice becomes much more complex when it’s integrated within an ERP system.

Aside from dealing with sometimes clunky user interfaces (see more on this directly), there are also common issues relating to where data is either pushed to one database or pulled from another. If corruption occurs, either way, just putting a series of numbers on a series of lines with the goal of calculating a sales total can cause a real problem.

This, then, represents an enhanced risk of lost time, or worse than that if the electronic invoice won’t calculate at all. With fee-based systems, the user can always call the brand tech and get him to deal with the problem. But if you’re operating on the open-source tier there’s no one to complain to except yourself.

Second, regardless of any apparent level of sophistication involving an open-source ERP system, these systems tend to be known as programmer rather customer-centric products, also sometimes referred to as ‘hobbyware’. In this case, systems tend to grow over time, not to plan. As a result, from a customer perspective, this means that documentation will usually be weak, while direct developer support will be equally weak or non-existent at all.

Third, at the OS tier, more times than not, issues of irregular usability emerge at the user level. In this event, I’m not discussing how a system works in general terms, but how that system is appreciated by the user while engaged in its processing chores. In the open-source world, programmers drive the bus, and everyone else follows along in their wake.

Consequently, this inverted value proposition becomes particularly concerning at the user interface level, since OS systems tend to focus on what’s under the hood, while not caring all that much about the quality of the exterior paint, brightwork, or how easy a system is to deal with. Again, these issues are real, but they are also manageable if an enterprise understands what its management is doing, well-heeled enough to harbor a solid group of internal tech resources, and finally, financially strong enough to pay for the privilege of getting something fixed at premium prices.             

Why businesses may opt for a free ERP

Now, while the previous discussion largely related to some of the negative elements associated with open-source ERP systems, in concert with the three previous closing assertions there are some other clearly positive values as well. First, there’s the matter of reduced up-front cost.

To be frank, any enterprise that doesn’t fret over money is likely to fail sooner rather than later. Consequently, given the enormous direct and indirect costs related to operating an ERP platform over time, any enterprise would be insane to try and avoid typical costs relating to a platform’s initial purchase price.

Check out our guide to open source ERP for a comprehensive walkthrough of what you can expect from a free ERP

For example, in order to license from 2 to 50 ERP seats in the cloud, the average price range is between $5k to 90$k; while at the same time, the same number of seats is purchased on a premise-ownership basis, that cost goes up by several magnitudes to range from $20k to $200k. So, regardless of how you’re going to house the ERP variant, these numbers are nothing to sneeze at.

Next up, there’s the matter of customization. In this case and assuming that an enterprise is particularly tech-adept, open-source systems are perfect platforms for those who want resources-processes done in on a proprietary basis. For example, consolidated sales reporting is a highly subjective art.

Some firms may want reports that display each and every sales revenue element rolled up on a ‘projected’ monthly total. However, other companies only consider ‘booked sales’ as valuable reporting metrics. Consequently, depending on a branded systems level of sophistication, the way that these reporting requirements differ could become a problem over time.

However, with open-source processes, users themselves easily alter how a system responds, and for enterprises’ that are most clever, this characteristic can save thousands of money year-over-year.   

Probable costs relating to free ERP

In my 2017 analysis, we discussed ‘probable costs’ related to open-source, and to be blunt, not much has changed from then to now. However, there is at least one core evolution that has altered the ERP open-source landscape during the preceding two years; lazy acceptance of cloud utilization.

Two years ago, according to Gartner and others, branded cloud-based ERP adoption suggested an 81% enterprise adoption rate, with open-source adoption roughly running at a similar adoption burn-rate. However, by 2019, while branded players are still growing, open-source systems are languishing at the same levels or worse.

According to tech consultant Frank Scavo writing for The Enterprise System Spectator, three components apply to the OS malaise:

  • “Open source needs a large set of potential users. Although the ERP market is huge, when you break it down by specific industries, it is small compared to the market for, say, Linux.
  • Enterprise apps require a large effort in marketing and sales. Buyers put great weight on name recognition. But open source projects do not generally show much interest in the sales and marketing side of a business.
  • Open source is labor-intensive. It is great for organizations that have time but no money…ERP adoption is somewhat more successful in some developing countries, where there are very smart people with good technical skills willing to spend the time to implement a low-cost or no-cost solution.”

From an anecdotal level, these assertions tend to track with our own thinking. However, once again, there is opportunity in the open-source market, if an enterprise is capable enough and persistent enough to stay the course.

The updated top free ERP systems

So, after all of that discussion, how are the original candidate-companies fairing after two years? Well, let’s see what’s going on with them, and add a couple more just to make things interesting.

ERPNext

The company continues to grow and currently maintains nearly 500 enterprises in various staged of self-development. The ERPN community has grown as a consequence of continual development.  

Openbravo ERP

This product is no longer available as an open-source value.  

Odoo ERP

Odoo continues to grow in both form and sophistication. The platform currently touts over 3 million users, and as an expected turn of events, is still free as an entry product value.

iDempiere

The iDempiere community continues to offer OS platforms including a particularly complex and sophisticated ERP variant. Once again, however, this open-source offer is not for the faint of heart, so if you think it will suit your enterprise needs, be ready to bring your ‘A Game’ along with a solid cadre of techs to manage the platform.

New players

Dolibarr ERP

Dolibarr ERP represents a next step in open-source development. The application appears to be easy to master and includes everything an ERP requires, including accounting, CRM, HR, and inventory modules.

xTuple

Built for flexibility, xTuple can run in the cloud or on a local server. The system touts its ability to handle multi-platform support for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

So there you go. If you think that your enterprise has the moxie to handle a self-developed ERP platform, feel free; but nevertheless, always mind the minefields before you step off.

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Rick Carlton

About the author…

Rick Carlton dba PRRACEwire, has worked as a tech journalist, writer, researcher, editor and publisher for many years. In addition to his editorial work, Rick has also served as a C-Level executive/consultant for a wide-range of private and public sector U.S. and International companies.

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Rick Carlton

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