The disparity between what you pay for and what you get with software purchases is ridiculous. In the physical sense anyway. Need a copy of AutoCAD? That'll be $4,200, here's a $.27 DVD. Want Office? $100 for the year, here's a website to go to. Granted, intellectual property has always been hard to quantify, but the ROI still seems unbalanced.

There are significant savings opportunities with software, typically in the manipulation of licensing agreements. Suffice it to say, if you have a thousand users and you bought each of them a copy of Office from Staples, you might want to read some of the other articles on this blog. And our book. But even when dealing with software reps, you're not getting the best price unless you know their volume breaks, their enterprise packages, and what other companies in the market have paid for similar agreements. Teaming with a company with access to that market data and strong planning and negotiating skills in the area is likely going to get you the best price.

But what if price doesn't even matter. What if your budget is literally zero. Maybe Finance thought Facebook was a good stock to buy, maybe they blew it all on Skittles, who knows. All that matters now is that the break room is down to ramen and tap water, and you have no budget.

There have always been free options to popular software. GIMP is a free and somewhat serviceable alternative to Photoshop. Google and Microsoft both offer free online word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation products that do most common Office tasks. These options have been good, but not great. Certainly not perfect. They've always been things you could learn to work around their quirks to get your work done.

Through open source projects -- software made free of cost and copyright for the community to use and further develop, with the stipulation that it remains free from copyright -- there are seriously good products on the market now. No quirks, no fuss, no cost. That's certainly budget-friendly, so let's look at a few:

Operating Systems - The bell cow of open source software has long been Linux, the open source version of UNIX. Traditionally, these have been super-stable operating systems that, due to their low user count, have rarely been targeted by viruses. With consumer-friendly versions out now, like the latest versions of Ubuntu, users have the stability of a UNIX system wrapped in a familiar, easy to use user interface. Which is more than users of Windows 8 can say.

Office Suites - There are two major offerings here, Open Office and Libre Office. Both do a phenomenal job of replicating practically every feature of Microsoft Office, with the added bonus of being offline, something Office 365 can't offer. Intricate Excel formulas and some advanced PowerPoint presentations don't always translate exactly right, but these are incredibly minor issue.

Project Management Software - This is where companies get creative and the opportunities get great. Some atypical project management solutions are actually within social networks. A lot of smaller companies and startups use traditional social networks, particularly Google+ and Tumblr, as defacto PM tools, in addition to specialty, business-focused social networks like

But the open source community has embraced project management as a sort of pet project, and turned out some really robust solutions., and LibrePlan all offer comprehensive solution, and this one post lists about seven more.

Servers - Chances are, if you ask your IT department, your web services and sites are on some variation of Microsoft of Apache servers. They have long been the industry mainstays, pretty much since the web took off in the '90s. Wired is reporting on a new challenger -- one that is better suited to modern multi-core processors and heavy traffic -- called nginX. Though it's only on 15% of the servers worldwide, this open source Russian project is backing some really big sites. WordPress, Netflix, Hulu, Pinterest, Zynga... the list reads like your company's website blacklist, but these high-volume, high-traffic sites all rely on this free server package. Additionally, Amazon reports that 40% of it's shared Web Services users -- mostly startups -- are running the nginX server. This is one solution that is not just equal, but better, than its paid-license competitors as it has higher returns across all performance metrics.

So even if your budget is totally blown on lotto tickets and pinball, if there's upgrades or updates needed, your department isn't totally out of luck.

Have you found any other affordable/free software solutions out there that are actually usable? If so, throw a link down in the comments!

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Nicholas Hamner

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