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Results of the 2015 Future of Open Source Survey suggest that some 78% of companies world-wide are actively using open source applications, while the number of enterprises not taking advantage of open source technologies or techniques in some way is less than 3%. There are several reasons for this, but all boil down to a single truth: open source is good for business. Even major IT players like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google are using open source technology.
In this article, we’ll be exploring why. First, though…
What Is Open Source?
Open source has its origins in the world of software development, and describes an approach where the underlying source code of an application is made available for anyone to inspect, enhance, and modify. This is typically done within the terms of an open source license, which usually grants anyone agreeing to it the right to use the software in any way they choose – provided that any modified applications they may redistribute themselves are given out under the terms of a similar agreement.
Open source development and distribution take place in an atmosphere of collaboration, the open exchange of views, rapid release of prototypes, transparency, and a community-oriented approach that has lent the name “open source” to a wider range of activities that include knowledge bases, crowd-sourcing, and the cloud-based provision of consultation and services.
For businesses, this approach has several tangible benefits.
Individual and corporate users of proprietary software (the kind that’s shipped out for sale by commercial vendors like Microsoft and others) often moan about its drawbacks – and rightly so.
Proprietary software is also known as “closed source”, because its creators retain the exclusive right to inspect, copy, or modify the software. If you’re a user, you have to wait for the company to issue an update containing that invoicing tool that’s crucial to your current marketing campaign – and if it takes them several months to do so (or if they never do), then so be it.
With open source, users can have a much greater degree of freedom over the tools they choose. Given such a vast development community, if there’s a particular function or class of software that your business requires, chances are that someone somewhere has created an application for it, or a module that can be added to an existing program. And if it doesn’t yet exist, it’s possible for you to code an amendment to an existing app yourself, or outsource this task to an open source developer who has the necessary skills.
In essence, this puts open source on a similar level to the custom-made or bespoke software applications gaining traction in the business arena – only without the hefty price tag sometimes associated with specialist programming. And the vast majority of ready-to-use open source applications are free, so there’s that.
By their very nature, open source applications are designed to run on a wide range of operating systems and hardware platforms – some you may never even have heard of. This greatly increases your chances of finding a software solution that’s compatible with the equipment you use, and can be readily integrated with your network, systems, and business operations.
The cloud has a large part to play in this, and many open source programs are themselves written and compiled using cloud-based computing resources, knowledge bases, and help from other developers. For business users, the integration of open source and cloud resources enables companies a greater degree of choice in their own cloud services – a key factor in avoiding potentially costly and limiting ties to specific vendors or service providers.
Central to the open source philosophy is your ability to delve into the innards of an application and modify it to better fit your requirements. If you or your company have the necessary programming skills, this can be accomplished in-house. If not, the required talent can easily be outsourced via the open source development community.
In most cases, an application amendment or even the commissioning of a brand new program specifically made for your company may be achieved at a fraction of the cost of a full-blown development project, or an ongoing subscription to a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) provider.
As well as direct approaches to the individuals or development teams responsible for creating a particular application, you’ll have access to developer groups, forums, wikis, FAQs, answer boards, and a host of other online resources.
Open source development is a highly competitive arena, with coders vying against each other to create more polished and professional-looking software solutions, or to add functionality to existing packages that no-one else has thought of before. For business users, this translates to greater choice – and you can compare and contrast similar products in a particular sector without having to buy a license for each one.
Contrary to popular misconception, the open source ecosystem isn’t a malware-ridden playing field for cyber-criminals and hackers. While it’s true that there’s a small percentage of unsavory types out there, it’s actually proprietary software that provides malicious coders with their principal targets. After all, with their often pricey output, high public and media profiles, business reputations, and positions within the industry, commercial vendors have much more to lose if their products are seen to be vulnerable to viruses, data breaches, and meddling.
And the community-based nature of the open source environment lends itself to accountability, self-monitoring, and the imposition of checks and balances. If a product wreaks havoc on its users’ systems, the development community will soon know about it – and a fix or viable alternative will likely soon follow. That same community will also be responsible for identifying and tweaking bugs, program glitches, or usability issues.
And The Money?
Cost savings are often cited as the primary attraction of open source technology, and it’s certainly true that you’ll spend a lot less on acquisition and licensing than you otherwise would for commercial off-the-shelf software. In most cases, you won’t have to pay anything at all.
Even the paid aspects of the open source environment tend to be more cost-effective. Since so much of the actual software is free, open source developers must turn to other means to pay their own way – and chief among these is the provision of paid technical support and consultation.
Again, in comparison to freelance or commercial providers, these services are competitively priced. And with literally a world of open source talent available for consultation, businesses are assured of advice, resources, and assistance 24/7.