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Open-source software: is it for you?

Many public and private organizations of all sizes might be missing out on the benefits of open source software because they simply do not understand how it could benefit their enterprise.

Many public and private organizations of all sizes might be missing out on the benefits of open source software (OSS) because they simply don’t understand how it could benefit their enterprise. Chief information officers (CIOs) and IT departments that do see the benefits of exploring OSS are often put off by the ongoing debates about risk, licensing, support, and maturity of open source. And, those organizations that do explore OSS often employ a misguided one-size-fits-all approach to evaluation, selection, utilization, and management within the company.

This type of thinking about OSS is causing many IT organizations to miss out on the ongoing practical value that can be realized from using what is now a vast and diverse toolkit of useful software components.

What is open-source software?

In general, open source refers to any program whose source code is made available for use or modification as users or other developers see fit. Historically, the makers of proprietary software have generally not made source code available. OSS is usually developed as a public collaboration and made freely available. The OSS license tends to favor the end-users of the software, as opposed to a propriety license, which favors the software vendor.

Linux, the operating system that’s part of the family of UNIX-based OSes, is one of the most popular open-source software products. Linux has become popular primarily because it is available free of charge and has a large development and user community. Linux is also often the OS of choice for Internet servers, used on almost a third of all Web servers in the world.

Another very popular open-source software program that’s gaining entry into millions of Windows- and Mac-based computing environments is the Foxfire Web browser by Mozilla. Many Firefox users couldn’t be bothered to alter or even look at its source code; they only like the program because it’s stable and reliable.

Know the benefits

Many CIOs start out wanting to use open-source software because it reduces development effort and costs, thereby saving the business money. However, after practical implementation, they soon realize there are several other benefits that might be more significant and longer lasting.

In fact, a good-sized portion OSS is actually aimed at speeding up enterprise software development, simplifying system management and maintenance, and improving software quality. Enterprises that learn to think about OSS as a solution to their holistic enterprise development needs will find several opportunities to improve the efficiency of their business and IT organizations, and lower the cost of building and operating enterprise systems.

— It’s easy to procure. There is no doubt that OSS can dramatically lower the total cost of ownership of enterprise systems, but one of the greatest benefits of using free software is often overlooked: OSS eliminates the pressure to make big decisions up front about what is needed before it is needed.

— It’s fit for purpose. OSS that is not easy to install, use, and manage does not survive. Since open-source code is scrutinized by thousands of developers worldwide, OSS developers are forced to keep their software as straightforward and lean as possible. They must limit their feature set to what is required right now and add features as their users request them. Unnecessarily complicated and bloated products with large footprints–such as most commercial application servers–are uncommon and short-lived in the open-source realm.

— It’s easy to change. Using OSS increases the options and the amount of control that can be exercised when developing, enhancing, evolving, and retiring enterprise systems. Open access to source code means that a software developer can always enhance, fix, or otherwise alter any open-source component at any time.

— It’s high quality. The methods used to develop OSS naturally favor the production of software that can often be higher quality than most other software, bespoke or commercial. Each OSS project is run like a small and efficient software business. The software is generally developed in cycles, each of which plans to release a new stable production version to the majority of users, who require predictability and reliability.

— Employees like it. The people factor shouldn’t be discounted. Working with new, cutting edge software might help attract, retain, and motivate internal IT professionals, leading to greater productivity over time.

Gaining the OSS advantage

Open-source software is here to stay. A properly implemented approach that addresses application ownership and copyright issues will help drive productivity, reduce risk and save money.

There are hundreds of tools and middleware in the OSS toolkit that are ready for prime time use in the enterprise IT environment. Depending upon specific requirements, OSS can be used to create a complete enterprise solution, or mixed and matched to complement commercial software. In either case, there is no reason to wait.

OSS is already an essential part of providing the fastest and most efficient enterprise solutions, and this trend will continue well into the future. Companies that take time today to select, evaluate, and apply OSS to their specific requirements will realize widespread benefits that are immediate, ongoing, and lasting.

Cyndi Mitchell >[email protected] thoughtworks.com< is a senior architect at ThoughtWorks, a maker of custom software solutions.

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