Open-source software: is it right for you?

Open source software adoption in enterprise computing is growing - but this does not mean that it is suitable for every enterprise. E&T considers some reasons to stick with the 'closed source' model.

If open source and commercial software are of about the same quality, and able to achieve similar results, why do so many organisations insist on sticking with more expensive commercial products when they could instead implement free and inexpensive open source alternatives?

Ironically, the first reason is cost. There is more to the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) than the purchase price of the software. User training, the hardware the products run on, and support staff all have a tangible cost; and in even a medium-sized organisations the volume discounts and site licences that are available from software vendors bring the purchase price of commercial software down significantly from the official list-price.

The physical cost of providing a software product to an organisation is no more than a few pounds for a manual and a CD, which means that the vendor of commercial software can discount as far as they wish (or, more accurately, feel necessary) in order to secure a sale. It's also common to offer discounts to get a foot in the door; once a vendor has persuaded a client to adopt its product, the cost and effort of moving away - either to a competitor product or an open source rival - can far outweigh the benefits of adopting that alternative product.

Open source support

The next issue with open source products is that although more vendors are providing support for them, a vast gulf remains between commercial and open source support. Any PC-compatible hardware you buy will have Microsoft Windows drivers available, but just as support for the likes of MacOS is far from universal, so is support for open source operating systems such as Linux. Some vendors make a splendid job of providing driver support (Intel, Cisco, and IBM all have good records in this respect, for example), but if you're intent on using open source software then you face a lengthy process of research and testing. In addition, even those vendors who provide Linux drivers often do so with caveats, limiting liability or stating expressly that the drivers are not formally supported.

Problems with support can even extend outside the hardware of the machine the software is running on - it wasn't so long ago, for instance, that a large broadband Internet provider's helpline told me that it couldn't proceed with a fault diagnosis (which turned out to be a dead phone line) because I happened to be sitting at a Linux PC attempting to try the tests they were asking me to do using the Firefox browser.

One of the benefits of open source software is implicit in the name: the source code is open, and available for any user to inspect and/or make changes as they see fit. If the code is open, the opportunity is there to examine how it works and potentially identify bugs, or security holes. Also, if one can change the code, it's possible to take an open source application and mould it to fit a specific requirement, or add a feature that is not provided as standard.

In reality, though, how many organisations really care at all about looking at the code, or making modifications? Generally speaking, useful open source applications tend to tens of thousands of lines of code, and so to read or change the program requires skilled developers and large amounts of both time and patience. Yes, people do it, but they are in a minority; and, in fact, with many open source applications being distributed in pre-compiled packages anyway, it's common not to bother even downloading the source code bundle.

A further key issue with open source software is that, even if you have made the choice to adopt open source products, and have acquired the skills to use and support them, and have accepted the costs of migrating from the incumbent products onto the open source alternative, this doesn't necessarily mean that the companies you deal with will necessarily agree it's such a fine idea.

Similarly, in service industries particularly, it is common for potential clients to carry out due-diligence audits on the suppliers they are considering; although open source is becoming more widely accepted, it's a fact that it's still far easier to have a commercial setup signed off than an open source one.

Further information
IET Technical & Professional Network:

http://kn.theiet.org/communities/software/index.cfm [new window]

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