September 5, 2006

Fear of OSSing?

Filed under: — mlazoff

Open source software (OSS) is an increasingly popular alternative to closed-source (usually) commercial products. When the source code is available to all, it is easier to ensure the program’s security and flexibility—although most recommend either employing or consulting with a technician very familiar with the product for installation, customization and maintenance. For an introduction on OSS for physicians see MCR’s Free and Open Source Software, freely available with registration (access on MCR’s home page, under the right navigation panel’s Administration)

According to “Do Small Businesses Fear Open Source?” an article posted on last week’s Information, “[m]any emerging enterprises run business-critical applications with open source software and wouldn’t have it any other way. But fully half of small and medium-sized businesses say they use little to no open source software, according to a survey conducted by InformationWeek and sister publication Network Computing of 441 companies with 100 to 5,000 employees. An additional 20% say they use it only for applications primarily used by IT.”

The article provides quotes describing “a profound wariness of products that don’t come with the assurances (warranted or not) of commercial software: stability, ease of use, on-demand technical support, and accountability.” Support is available from some open source programs such as Red Hat, but “…not all open source software boasts this level of assistance, and there’s a big difference between having an 800 number to call and posting a question on a community site and hoping for a response. Of course, if you’re using software with an active community there’s a chance you may get a useful response faster than from the 800 number…”

In this survey, saving money was a key motivator for businesses to use open source software. “Some 46% of respondents to the InformationWeek/Network Computing survey say “low or no cost” is the most important reason for deploying open source software. But a true assessment of cost must include implementation, training, and long-term maintenance over the software’s life. While open source software often has a low (or no) price tag, and you can run it on inexpensive hardware, that’s only part of the savings. Companies also can cut costs by avoiding software that requires expensive skill sets.”

If purchasing open source software is less expensive than its closed-source commercial counterparts, the cost of technical support may not be. “The staff to run your open source software likely will be a key cost factor. Open source experts will be harder to find than Windows administrators, which also means they’ll be more expensive. Another cost is maintenance. If you have a skilled open source expert on staff or you purchase support contracts from a third party, maintenance may be a snap. But if your staff has to dig through source code to uncover bugs or scour mailing lists, forums, and Web sites for key fixes, support costs will rise…The ease of adapting and upgrading open source was the second most-frequently cited reason that emerging enterprises deploy open source software in the InformationWeek/Network Computing survey, though at 13% it’s a distant second to low price. Because you have access to source code, you can adapt the software to suit your needs…You also can take advantage of add-ons and modifications created by the user community, which often acts as an ad hoc development group. On the downside, if you aren’t capable of building a particular feature for yourself, you have little recourse but to hope someone else in the community will develop it.”

The article concludes, “[l]ike all software, open source carries both risks and rewards. Technical support, lifetime ownership costs, and the ability to find qualified open source administrators are the key factors in evaluating whether you’re the open source type. Through careful evaluation, you can minimize the risks and maximize the rewards of open source.” So the fear of open source software in this article title is unwarranted; beyond providing marketing information, the fear is in drawing conclusions from surveying individuals who don’t understand which business environments favor the use of open source software, and which do not.

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