Is Open Source right for your company?

Nowadays, whenever IT (Information Technology) solution for businesses is mentioned, the term Open Source is there. In this article, we will examine what Open Source is, what the usual license terms are what they mean for your business and if it is right for your company.

OpensourceWhat is Open Source?

Before we understand what Open Source is, we need a rough knowledge about how a software/program is written. All the software that we use today, whether it is Microsoft Word that we use in our office or the Windows operating system that we run our programs on, started off as a line of code (instructions to the machines, also known as source code) written by a programmer or a team of programmers sitting somewhere, be it in India or right here in the States.  After all the codes, from a few lines to millions of lines are written, they are usually compiled (built) into an executable such as program.exe.

With a traditional (or Closed Source or proprietary) software, the source code written by the programmers are never available to the public; nobody knows how the program is written nor the inner details of the program.

Open Source software is software with the source code freely available to the public; if you know programming, you can change the way the program works by making changes in the source code.

Most Open Source programs are free, although some have restrictions depending on type of license that comes with the software.

Types of Open Source licenses

There are two major types of license for Open Source software: GPL (GNU’s General Public License) and BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) style license. The current version of GPL can be seen at www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html. A detail explanation of BSD style license and a sample is available at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BSD_license.

Without going into too much details, the difference is while GPL states that any software derived from GPL software must also be released under the GPL, the BSD license says, “here's the source code, you can do whatever you want, as long as credit is given to the original author.”

For a software company that needs to get the source code, make modifications, then turn around and sell the changed/improved software to make a profit, BSD license is better because you can do so without releasing the changes you have made to the public. Under GPL, the free software you get and make changes to needs to stay free. However, both types are usually freely useable by businesses for commercial purposes. The only difference is what you can do with the changes you have made.

There is no free lunch

If you are thinking if most Open Source softwares are free, how do these people make money? After all, there is no free lunch in business, right?

Well, most successful Open Source programs are the product of huge community efforts contributed by thousands of volunteers across the globe in their free time. Some are full-time employees of companies like Apple while others are just extreme enthusiasts (Ph. D students at UC Berkeley for instance). Most Open Source projects are grass-root movement though a few have incorporated, gone public, and began selling products and services commercially. An example would be Red Hat, Inc, which sells the Red Hat Linux operating system based upon Open Source project called Linux. Therefore, even though Open Source software might be free, most projects still get their funding through donations and selling support for their software.

Is Open Source software good enough for business?

If you are unable to bring yourself to trust your business on the work done by volunteers, please consider this. Google with its billions of users and revenue is entirely based on an Open Source operating system called Linux. Yahoo Inc. runs its web-based e-mail with millions of users around the world with the help of an Open Source operating system called FreeBSD. Please see the side notes for some of the successful Open Source projects.

What are the goods and the bads of Open Source?

For businesses, the very nature of having the source code of a program available to public could be a blessing or a disaster and very often both. Why? Because since both the good guys and the bad guys can see the inner workings of a program, they can use it for any purpose that fits them. When good programmers go through and review the source code, they can find vulnerabilities, suggest improvement, and return their improvements back to the IT community. On the other hand, the malicious programmers looking at the source code of a program can exploit its weaknesses for financial gain or blackmail a company.

In addition, one of the significant disadvantages is, due to the tendency of Open Source programs to base on open technologies, most Open Source programs require greater technical skills than programs you bought off the shelf. That meant even though most Open Source programs are free, they require IT personnel that is harder to find.

For instance, in the years we have been in business, we have not seen many firms like us that would support both mainstream products like Microsoft’s as well as Open Source programs. However, even after factoring in the cost of IT personnel along with everything else, the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) for Open Source programs are lower than most commercial software, and in some cases, much lower. Take Moodle (an online learning system for schools, colleges, and universities listed on the side) as an example. The commercial products (WebCT, Blackboard) cost $220K-$280K per sale while Moddle averages from $400 to $79K1. This kind of savings is nothing to sneeze at ... if you have the right IT support on your side.

Things to watch out for if you go Open

If you are selecting Open Source, the first thing you should look at is how big the community is. Smaller communities can mean less people to turn to if you have a problem with the software. The second is, how active or friendly the community is. You can tell by looking at the forums usually found on the project’s website. In very active communities, questions are usually answered within minutes or hours. The third is the version of the software. Software less than version 1 (such as 0.1) usually are still considered immature and should not be used for your business. Also, be careful with lone-programmer projects because he might get too busy with his life, becomes frustrated and calls it quit. Then you will be alone when the music stops. Yes. Linux is started by one person: Linus Travolds. Still, this is rare exception rather than the norm. What usually happen is some of these "unpaid" hobby projects take a backseat when the lone programmer gets married, changes jobs, or relocated. We are all human after all.

Conclusion

Open Source software can be a very useful business wanting to cut expenses without sacrificing the quality of the software. However, only with the help of the right IT personnel, you can make if work for you.

References
1. Farmer, Jim: On the course of selling enterprise learning system, {online} Available http://www.immagic.com/eLibrary/GENERAL/IMM/I060108F.pdf. Jan. 2006

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About the author

Larry Oo is a MCSE, CCNA, A+, Network+, Security+, Linux+, iNet+ and CISSP certified information systems consultant with over 14 years of IT experience. He is neither pro nor against Open Source. His motto is “the right tool for the right job and whatever is best for the client.” If you have a comment or suggestion, please contact Larry at larry |@| kcconsultants.com.