Although corporate attitudes to open source software are becoming increasingly positive, there are implications other than cost for the board to consider.
Issues of system architecture rarely register on the board's radar, but awareness of open source software is certainly increasing. The media profile of Linux is higher than ever and, amid the economic downturn, it is inevitable that "free software" will capture the attention of hard-pressed chief executives.
"Open source software is a serious player in corporate IT," said Nikos Drakos, research director at Gartner. "More and more software suppliers are supporting their applications - it is an upward trend."
Although suppliers such as Computer Associates are moving performance management tools across to Linux, system management for open source lags behind, said Drakos.
There is not yet parity with Microsoft, but interest in products such as Staroffice is growing cautiously, according to Tif, the corporate IT forum.
"Members are not giving Staroffice the thumbs down - there is a lot of interest in open source technology," said one member. "It could be ideal for smaller or greenfield sites but not, at the moment, for larger corporations with a dedicated plan."
UK adoption of open source software lags behind Germany and the US. While pressure groups such as Open Forum Europe and Netproject do sterling work to widen awareness and understanding, reference sites are still not plentiful.
However, there are areas where open source systems are commonplace. The majority of web servers are based on the open source Apache system.
Board attitudes to open source will be influenced by the company culture. Early adopters will be more receptive, as will those who want a lower-cost way of developing bespoke systems.
Existing system architecture will also influence how hard it will be to adopt open source. IT departments that use Unix or those rich in Java skills will have an easier time.
It is essential to see past the "free" part of open source, and for IT managers to convey to the board the full gamut of implications. Although open source is certainly maturing, with industry heavyweights such as IBM, Oracle and SAP investing seriously, it is not yet widely implemented in corporate IT.
The extent to which open source software is free needs to be understood as it may not be as much as you think. However, the multiplier effect comes into play when thousands of PCs are involved; the savings from cutting out Microsoft licence fees can mount up.
It is also acknowledged that Microsoft's controversial licensing changes last year helped the cause of Linux among resentful Microsoft customers.
Linux pressure group Netproject claims open sourced-based systems cost one tenth of that of systems based on proprietary technology. "Initial figures for the total cost of ownership of Linux on the desktop is 35% that of Microsoft Windows," it said.
Gartner is more cautious. It is currently retuning its total cost of ownership figures to take open source into account. Gartner said users of open source systems will save about 3%, mainly by not paying for software licences.
But although some open source implementations will show better immediate software cost savings than others, users can expect hardware cost savings too. Linux uses hardware more efficiently, besides running on commodity Intel boxes and, where time is money, the community of free fixes and patches means better uptime. Development might be faster too, thanks to the freely available Gnome repository of objects.
Perhaps most attractively, open source gets users off the treadmill of the supplier's upgrade cycle. Users can stick with older versions of open source software while it makes economic sense and upgrade when they choose, rather than having to dance to the supplier's tune.
Open source systems can be freely customised for particular applications by, for example, disabling internet access to users. The flexibility and return of control to users is proving as strong an attraction as the promise of "free" software.
There is also the reaction of IT staff to training in Linux. IT professionals will gain little in terms of an edge in the job market by widening their repertoire.
Like it or not, open source is yet another operating system and therefore will inevitably increase the heterogeneity of IT architecture. However available open source skills become, they will need to be added to the existing complement. Heterogeneity also increases architectural complexity, and any migration always carries a change-management cost.
Secondly, the very attraction of open source software - that it is non-proprietary - carries a sting in the tail. Not only will users be required to spend time and trouble contributing their own innovations back to the open source community, but such innovations may have implications for corporate intellectual property rights.
Users could end up sharing their IT-conferred competitive edge with their rivals.
Like all business choices, open source is not a no-brainer, and the word "free" should be carefully explained to chief executives eager to corral IT costs.
Nevertheless, in terms of the IT industry, open source does seem to represent the users' last, best hope to regain competitive choice in a skewed market. Whether the virtues of populist, self-governing open source will outweigh the ordered comfort of Microsoft hegemony, only time will tell.
What users think about open source
The 2003 Open Source Perception Survey found that UK users are more confident about open source than in 2002. IT Forum Foundation surveyed 62 chief information officers and heads of IT from large financial services firms, retailers and the public sector.
Of the respondents, 46% said they now have greater confidence in open source than in 2002. Open source is mainly used for IT infrastructure, 62% said they are using open source to run web servers and firewalls.
Graham Taylor, a director at IT Forum Foundation, said, "Few organisations have changed their overall perception of open source, but there is a big push in terms of confidence."
While the 2002 survey showed users were looking at open source software to reduce their IT costs, the 2003 research found that security is a high priority.
"A year ago, people felt open source would be a hacker's charter as everyone had access to the code," said Taylor, but in the 2003 research he said, "Access to the source code makes open source more secure."
The problem of support is still a number one priority among users, with 37% citing availability of support as the biggest inhibitor to adopting open source. Taylor believes this is set to improve. "Over the last year the only big company pushing open source was IBM. Today, HP and Sun are also supporting open source."
Taylor believes 2003 will be the year organisations move from piloting open source to deploying applications. "During 2003 we will see a flood of mainstream open source software use in both back- and front-office applications."
At the Gartner Spring Symposium in Florence, George Weiss, research director at Gartner, said Linux was increasing in maturity as an enterprise platform.
Due to the two systems' similarities, Unix skills are transferable to Linux. Weis said there are legions of people in the Unix community who could now develop and support Linux deployments.
This was first published in April 2003