As a person who has been involved in the IT industry for over 30 years, I was quite surprised when I came across this blog article on open source software in the BPiM LinkedIn group. This post deals individually with the misconceptions on open source listed in the linked article.

First of all, it is important to be clear on what open source software is. In simple terms (and this is actually complex), the main points that define open source software are:  free redistribution, the source code must be publicly available, and derived works must be distributed according to the original license. You can find the exact (page long) definition here.

To sum it up briefly, there can be four cases:

–        Proprietary software you pay for, example: Microsoft Office
–        Proprietary software  that is free: AVG
–        Open source software you pay for: Red Hat Enterprise
–        Open source software that is free: Firefox

This article deals with the software that falls in the last two categories.

Consultation: the article linked to above implies that choosing open source software leaves you on your own. This cannot be further from the truth. There are many IT companies that support open-source software. For example, we at Clever Solutions Ltd, help clients understand the benefits they may enjoy when they choose to use open-source software. Like us, there are many other companies worldwide that support open source software. Open source software generally offers an alternative business model, where users have no or little initial investment and only pay for continuous development and professional support. This support is sometimes advantageously available from multiple vendors, unlike with proprietary software, and thus reduces your business risk.

Integration: When you first build your custom software, it is impossible to cater for all possible future scenarios. When requirements change and additional functionality is required, it is often the case that shortcomings are discovered, requiring previous code to be modified. For open-source software, with worldwide user take up, many of these shortcomings would have already been taken care of. Thus when further development is required, the probability of getting stuck due to inflexible code is more remote. It is important to remember that open-source does not mean free or unprofessional, and that many governments and millions of businesses rely on open-source software. That on its own says a lot.

Customisation: I have to reiterate that there are many companies who provide customisation for open source software. Although one may think that bespoke software caters for all your whims and needs, one has to consider two important factors: 1) how long will it take to develop the software and 2) how much will it cost? Open source software may not be a 100% fit but it is often ‘good enough’. If custom features are required, you can either push for their development in the developer community around the software or you can hire a third-party developer to develop the necessary customisations.

Cost: the article acknowledges that many open source software is free and then goes on to say that one has to pay for support. The major difference is there may be no initial investment in the application (unlike bespoke and most off the shelf software), and as for support the myriad forms of support may actually lend support for free or at a lower cost, when compared to the total cost of proprietary software.

Time: It is interesting that time is used as a reason not to use open source software. In reality, starting development from scratch is a sure way to long and often extended deadlines. Software custom built from scratch is not a time-saving solution.

Security: The argument that since the code is visible, it is more vulnerable to attack, is often mistakenly brought against open source software. In actuality, the more developers there are studying the software, the more secure it becomes. When there is a large community behind an application, vulnerabilities are spotted and fixed on time. On the other hand, building your security on the basis of obscurity will surely lead to one surprise after another. Recently, in the Coverity Scan Open Source Integrity Report (link requires registration) it was reported that open-source software has less defects per thousand lines when compared with proprietary software.

Support: This is another misinformed and weak attempt to downplay how far open-source software has come. The fact is that open-source software is supported by communities of passionate experts and also by numerous professional companies. Actually, the question one has to ask is who is going to help you when the developer who produced your software moves on? This is the real issue one has to consider.

Many businesses in Malta are not exposed to the enormous advantages of open-source software. It is important that there is a more general public knowledge on this subject so that professionals and business owners like yourselves can enjoy the benefits (e.g. save money, less risk, etc…) of open source software.

Where do you stand on open source software? Would you recommend its use in your business?