The use of open-source software is increasing and not just from unsanctioned installations on company equipment.
More organizations are adopting open-source alternatives to commercial software, even at a local government level. These organizations see this as a means of reducing staff layoffs or costs associated with upgrading or renewing licenses.
There are both positives and negatives to adopting open-source solutions, with many companies selecting software based on the perceived cost benefits alone, and without considering other options, including virtualization or cloud-based solutions that can reduce licensing expenditure.
Open-source software refers to software that allows third parties to view, modify and even relicense the software. The cost to the end user is generally free but many companies offer enterprise support for an annual subscription fee.
Commercial support vs. open-source support
When you consider that the source code is accessible, companies can often tweak the software, plug exploits and remove unnecessary features. This can improve efficiency, speed and security. This flexibility is not possible with commercial alternatives as the code is not accessible and customization is limited.
Chris Halls, managing director of credativ Ltd., a UK-based consultancy for the open-source software industry, says that the majority of his commercial clients notice an improvement in the overall efficiency, speed and security of their systems when compared to proprietary legacy technologies. “Open-source solutions are more secure because the code is open; any vulnerabilities are easily detectable and quickly resolved by referring to the vast online free-software-development community,” says Halls.
On the other hand, it is this very “open” nature that can introduce security problems. Sonia Cuff, a director of Computer Troubleshooters Aspley, an Australia-based provider of technology advice and support to SMBs, says, “the very nature of open-source software allows anyone with some coding knowledge to contribute to the software code. That’s a real concern given the skills and anonymity of the hacking community. With open-source software, you are at the mercy of the open-source community.”
Cuff adds: “With only an informal network of people to connect to for support, response times to a query or software error can be problematic with open-source software. There’s no official IT department or responsibility chain to escalate issues to and no budget for one. Commercial software houses are also very good at compatibility testing. With open-source software, you just have to hope that the contributors address any errors arising from dependent software updates and that they’ll do it fast.”
Greg Nixon, a director of New Zealand Computing Solutions, a Wanganui-based provider of IT solutions in the legal and security sectors, believes that the use of open-source solutions can save money. He says that open-source office applications can be a benefit and cites WordPress as a prominent open-source content management system for websites.
He says that open-source solutions can be just as secure as their commercial alternatives: “Open source is more open to public scrutiny, and a community of developers often ensures that new exploits are patched quickly.”
Nixon says that the biggest problems facing companies switching to open-source software are “mainly down to the user interface [the visual layout is often different] and finding prompt support [when compatibility or security issues arise]. Employee training can be an added cost often unanticipated by companies,” he says.
Despite her concerns, Computer Troubleshooters’ Cuff says that companies that specialize in software creation and development “also have rapid and strict response procedures to address security issues because their reputation is at stake [even Microsoft offers a bounty to those who discover security holes and vulnerabilities that they have missed] and a larger user base means security issues are more quickly identified and resolved.”
Halls sees another advantage to open-source software. He says “it’s hard to develop malware for software which is constantly being developed and customized. We use open source throughout our business and enjoy the flexibility to adapt the software to suit specific requirements.”
He recommends that companies perform due diligence in their research. “Don’t just follow the status quo and get locked into a solution that may not be right for your business five years from now. ’Most expensive’ or ’most well known’ doesn’t necessarily mean most suitable.”