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Open Source

 Have you considered using “Open Source” software as part of your organisation’s IT systems? Chances are that if you’re an executive the answer is No. I meet many executives, both business and IT leaders, who dismiss the use of Open Source without much consideration for a variety of reasons. Common amongst these reasons are: they don’t trust the product because it is “free” and you get what you pay for, no company is accountable for warranting that the product is fit for purpose or free of bugs or malware, nobody is identifiably responsible for providing support if the product goes wrong, and there is nobody to enter into a contract with who can be sued to mitigate the risk of losses consequent to product failure.


On the face of it these seem like sound, responsible reasons for an executive to deprecate or prohibit the use of Open Source to reduce risk in an organisation’s IT systems, but are they? As an IT professional and IT leader I’ve been using Open Source in corporate environments for over 30 years, an open-mindedness that has never let me down - in marked contrast to my experiences with commercial proprietary software I’ve never had my fingers burnt by Open Source software. On the contrary using Open Source often makes very good sense, and I’d like to share some of the reasons for this with you.

Let’s take the first argument - something for nothing - it can’t be much good or I’d have to pay for it (not all Open Source software is free, but Free Open Source Software (FOSS) is usually what we mean when we refer to Open Source). How do we measure whether something is any good? Generally if lots of people use it and are satisfied with it then it looks “good”, so do lots of people willingly use Open Source? Well; the World Wide Web is primarily built using Open Source software - most web hosts are running open source software for their operating system and webserver, and billions of people depend upon them every day. Over 80% of the content management systems, and the databases behind them, used in websites are Open Source - including the White House website and millions of others large and small. The Android operating system which powers over 80% of smartphones is Open Source. Clearly Open Source is a major, widely used, form of technology distribution used and commonly depended upon by most of the world’s computer users whether they realise it or not. It delivers immense value and demonstrates that the “something for nothing” suspicion is groundless.

No company is responsible for warranting the software: this is often (but not always) true, but hey! who cares? The principle of Open Source is that the source code of the software is available for anyone to examine, inspect, debug, fix etc. with the consequence that the more popular Open Source packages are inspected and contributed to by large communities of expert software developers who use these packages and have personal interest in ensuring that they are reliable. Instead of the scenario where a small team of maybe five to ten developers create and maintain a commercial product, many Open Source packages are created and examined and debugged by literally hundreds of highly motivated experts. When a bug or flaw is discovered it is usually rectified by the development community as a matter of urgency and pride with the result that popular Open Source is highly reliable, thoroughly debugged, and fixed quickly - in short all that one might ask of a quality software product. Ultimately the matter of warranty becomes irrelevant because of the resources and integrity behind the product - like the US dollar the worthiness of Open Source is a matter of trust in the productivity of a community, it needs no warranty.  

Where do we turn for support? The glib answer is yourself - or at least your own IT experts. Certainly it helps to have in-house software expertise when using Open Source - proprietary software is like a black box, if there is a problem all you can do is call the makers, but with Open Source you have the opportunity to fix problems in-house and this means problems can often be resolved faster and cheaper than calling out external experts. The reality for many firms is that they don’t have much in-house IT expertise, so the question is entirely valid. As a consequence a new branch of the IT industry has emerged providing commercial support for Open Source, ranging from small firms specialising in a single package through to Open Source giants such as Canonical, Suse and Red Hat (7,100 employees), and established suppliers of commercial software including Oracle and IBM. Clearly the scale of these companies mean that providing support for Open Source is a serious business attracting serious players upon whom any company can rely; for companies which wish to purchase external support all of the popular Open Source packages are covered by specialist commercial support providers. Support is also usually competitively priced because unlike with proprietary software anyone can offer support for Open Source, leading to greater competition and choice.

Nobody to sue… Well yes, in general that’s true. An organisation using Open Source does so at its own risk, and all Open Source software contracts are explicit on the matter of liability - no liability for consequential loss or damages is accepted. Then again the number of successful lawsuits against packaged software suppliers is very, very small; failure is almost always found to be the fault of the user except where the supplier has made promises they failed to keep. Over several decades the concept of backing off packaged software risk via legal liability has repeatedly been shown to be irrelevant, a false hope for the paranoid.

What this comes down to is that the high-level governance concerns which inhibit adoption of Open Source software in business and government are largely either misconceived or irrelevant. The UK Government is steadily increasing Open Source adoption but is way behind the governments of Germany, China, Russia, France, Spain and many other major powers. Major “new” corporations such as Amazon, Google and Ocado, and established blue-chips such as the London Stock Exchange, Peugeot and Electrolux are all significant Open Source users, and almost all e-commerce and email relies upon Open Source. For some types of application, particularly web, database, content management, network security, telecommunications and software development, Open Source offerings are widely accepted as equivalent or superior to the best available commercial packages. 

If you haven’t yet accepted the adoption of Open Source in your organisation perhaps it’s time to think again. Old perceptions die hard but clearly Free Open Source Software is a serious force in business IT, widely adopted by Governments, global corporations and SMEs. It is here to stay, and is giving some companies, may be including your competitors, real commercial advantage. 

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