Sep 2010

Reasons to use open source software

In early days of open source movement, fear mongers created the perception that open source software is not fit for large organisations. Despite the costs, commercially licensed software was seen as a safer alternative to open source and many arguments were brought forward to claim the hidden cost of open source software. Some corporate IT managers still think like this. And they are doing their companies a great disservice.

The open source software movement has matured to become a strategic enabler for corporate IT. Corporate IT needs to assess where open source software can help accomplish the company's business objectives. Here are top reasons why open source software, correctly managed, can be a strategic enabler.

Faster time from idea conception to proof of concept

A properly skilled IT department can often go from idea conception to proof of concept in as much time as their centralised purchasing department setting up and completing request for information / proposal process with commercial software vendors. Open source software is available at large for anyone to download and implement whenever and wherever. There is no need to wait for the software DVD or license key to arrive from any vendor. The software is ready to be implemented at once.

And since there is no external cost involved in doing the proof of concept, there is less political pressure to abandon the idea and move on to the next open source software or to the next idea. Open source software can bring about agility and efficiency.

Faster time from problem identification to resolution

Open source software is available complete with source code (i.e. human readable program). A properly skilled IT department can leverage the source code to troubleshoot a problem that arises within the software because they can investigate what went through the program. They can know where the problem is and what causes it.

And then there is the open source community. It is a community where knowledge sharing is treasured. And in strong open source community, help can come from the community in ways that are sometimes faster and more relevant than support coming from a vendor's hep desk.

Even better, once the solution is known the IT department can fix it themselves and rebuild the software, if needed. There is no need to wait for the software vendor to figure out what the problem is and come up with a fix. (Depending on service level agreement, the wait can be longer than when the fix is needed.) Open source software can lead to less dependence on external vendors.

Faster time from improvement availability to it being implemented

Commercial software vendors try to please all their customers, but unfortunately not all customers will get the improvements they want when they want them. Sometimes the commercial vendors will delay some new feature due to limited development resources (no matter how big they are). Sometimes they release them when there is no IT budget for software upgrade. Which means the users must wait for budget to be made available while making do with less efficient work-around.

This again is where the open source community shines. Development of the “new” or “improved” functionality can be done by any member of the community. People can develop it themselves and use it internally. Better yet, the development can be submitted back to the open source community for the entire community to adopt. In a thriving open source software community, feature growth is as fast as how active the members are at contributing back new development to the community. This can lead to faster access to more functionality.

Flexibility in choosing when to upgrade

This one is the other side of the coin from the point above. More often than not, it is better to upgrade software in line with its current release cycle. However, it is a fact of life that some software cannot be upgraded in timely fashion consistently, whether it is due to budgetary reason nor technical reason nor whatever reason. The issue with commercially licensed software is that they always terminate support for older versions which leaves corporate IT managers to decide whether to pay extra for the extended support (if it is even an option at all) or upgrade (not free either). If neither really is possible, then the company is operating the software at risk, because if there is a critical problem, it cannot get support from the vendor and it does not have the source code to fix it (see above).

This does not happen on a daily basis, but when it happens, it can be headache nonetheless. With open source software, there is a greater degree of control to upgrade when it makes sense to internal timetable as opposed to someone else's. Open source software can lead to more control over maintenance timetable.

Focus on software merits

Companies who avoid open source software are limited to evaluate commercial software during their software selection process. They might be missing a great opportunity to compare commercial software against equivalent open source alternatives. In many situations, open source alternative can be technically as good as the commercial software. Increasingly, more and more critical corporate IT capability runs on open source software. Open source software adds options to software selection.

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Caveat emptor. Open source software is not a miracle cure. It does what it does best, but it is not to be used without proper assessment.

Here are some things to watch out for.

Know thy total cost of ownership

From the perspective of total cost of ownership, open source software is never free. And poorly managed, it can be as expensive as commercially licensed software. The key consideration is between fit of internal capability to do the work versus cost of hiring external skill to do the work. If neither of them is attractive compared to commercially licensed software (inclusive of all the external skill that often has to be hired too), then cost obviously is not a selling factor. Unless there is a real strategic advantage, then skip it for some other software projects.

There is also a danger that corporate IT function starts building every skill internally, instead of hiring external services, which eventually will lead to larger and larger internal IT headcounts. Eventually, this will be detrimental. So there is a fine balance that must be watched with discipline.

Know thy open source software

Not every piece of open source software is created equal. Barrier of entry is almost none, so there is a bewildering array of open source software out there varying in quality from mediocre to best-in-class. And the community behind the open source software is equally an important consideration. Without a good community behind it, long term maintenance cost may creep up over time.

Know thy legal constraints

Open source software comes in a number of license flavours. If the use of the software is not purely internal, then pick one that will fit the intended use. Open source license vary from liberal to restrictive. Legal departments are usually hung up by the restrictive licensed open source software, but there are many superb open source software with liberal license for the picking. Some are also offered with dual license, open source or commercial with commercial support. It really depends on a case by case, depending on the open source software choices in a given segment at a given time. It does change from time to time. If nothing fits, go commercial software. In short, license is a tactical consideration, but not a strategic show stopper.

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Corporate IT strategy should be about focusing on long term business strategy and ways to execute it with speed, effectiveness and efficiency. Open source software has helped many companies deliver on those and it can help many more companies.

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