October 19, 2009
Column | techwatch

Next from open source: warehousing apps

Low- or no-cost warehouse management systems are beginning to emerge. But experts warn they're not for everyone.

By James A. Cooke

As the open source movement sweeps through the world of software development, business applications based on open code are popping up all over. So it comes as no surprise that open source versions of specialized apps like warehouse management software (WMS) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems are starting to show up.

The open source approach, first popularized by the Linux operating system, represents a sharp contrast to the traditional software model, where vendors develop proprietary systems and license them to users for a hefty fee. With open source, the developer licenses the software under a general public license (like the GNU GPL) that allows others to use the program as well as to view and modify the source code for free (or for a modest fee). Modifications generally must be shared with other users.

One of the first open source warehousing apps to appear on the market was "myWMS," a program developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML), a consulting firm based in Dortmund, Germany. Fraunhofer, which began developing the application in 2001, says the current version can support bar-code scanners and mobile devices in a warehouse setting. Olaf Krause of Fraunhofer IML told me that myWMS is available both under a general public license and through a commercial license that includes support (for a fee). As appealing as that might sound, there's a catch. Right now, the software is only available in Europe.

But that doesn't mean U.S. companies have been shut out of the market altogether. Last fall, Compiere Inc. of Redwood Shores, Calif., introduced Compiere Warehouse Management, which was developed on an open source platform. Although it's an open source application, this WMS isn't free. It is only available as an add-on module to the professional or "cloud" edition of Compiere's open source ERP application, for which the company charges a fee. (Compiere also offers a community edition of its open source ERP application at no cost.)

Compiere designed the WMS in collaboration with the European eyewear retailer Specsavers Optical Group, which uses Compiere's open source ERP system. The developer says its WMS automates inbound and outbound logistics activities within a warehouse or distribution center and improves visibility into the operation. For use of its WMS, Compiere charges a fee of several thousand dollars per warehouse—a fee the company describes as a fraction of the amount charged for traditional WMS software licenses.

As appealing as that price point may be, the open source route is not for everyone. For one thing, there's the problem of technical support. A company that takes this approach should be prepared to blaze its own trail, handling everything from installation to software modifications on its own. In this regard, open source is very different from the traditional proprietary software model, where new users can often find support and guidance from existing customers or seek help from a systems integrator affiliated with the vendor.

The question of technical support is a particular concern with WMS installations, according to one software expert. These projects tend to be unusually demanding from a programming perspective because of all the systems integration work involved. "WMS is extremely complicated because you have to interface to so many things," says Phil Obal, president of Industrial Data and Information Inc., an independent software research company based in Tulsa, Okla. "Because of the complexity, I would shy away from open source unless you have a heavy IT group willing to partner with the open source group."

As an alternative to open source, Obal suggests that companies consider asking their existing WMS vendors to provide them with the source code, which their in-house IT people can then modify to meet their needs. "Why not partner with a top vendor and get source code?" he says. "That way, you promise to stay on the upgrade path, and you can make modifications carefully. If you have a savvy IT team with the time and know-how, I would look at the source code from a vendor."

About the Author

James A. Cooke
Editor at Large
James Cooke has more than two decades' experience as a journalist covering logistics and transportation as well as supply chain strategy and technology. A former editor at Logistics Management magazine, he has earned numerous awards for his well-written, in-depth articles spotlighting developments in distribution. During his tenure at that publication, he served in such roles as news editor, international editor, feature writer, technology editor, and, finally, executive editor. He conceived and led the launch of the publication, Supply Chain Management Review. He is the author of the book Protean Supply Chains published by Wiley. He has presented at such conferences as CSCMP, MHIA, and WERC.

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