The government released an action plan last weekto showhowopen source technology is offering better value for money in public sector IT. With the recession deepening, can UK businesses and the public sector stretch IT budgets further by buying open source alternatives to commercial products?
Barriers to adoption
Open source software allows users to try before they buy. IT departments can deploysoftwarefree in a pilot project. The business only needs to pay when it requires enterprise support.
Open source is already widely used in the public sector. Half of the main government department websites use the open source Apache web server, while the NHS "Spine" uses an opensource operating system and critical systems such as Directgov and electronic vehicle licensing use open source components.
Open source covers almost every niche in the business software market. Businesses can deploy the Linux operating system, open source databases such as MySQL and Ingres, open source application servers such as Glassfish, and business intelligence tools such asJasperSoft and Talend.
But some users are not convinced open source is viable.
Socitm president Richard Steelsays open source still lags behind commercial products by several years.
"I donot like the term 'open source'. It is misleading what many people mean is 'anything but Microsoft'. Few businesses use open source directly - they buy software derived from open source that has been commercially packaged and sold with support, which, in practice, is little different to licensed software," says Steel, who also heads up IT at Newham Borough Council.
"I donot think we could achieve the anytime, anywhere fixed and mobile infrastructure with telepresence we require for flexible and new ways of working using only open source."
But Steel would not rule out using open source at Newham. The council signed a ground-breaking 10-year contract with Microsoft and HP in 2003, where Steel ran a competitive tender with Windows against Linux.
"Newham has used open source for some applications since the time it did its deal with Microsoft, and continues to do so," he says.
Barriers to adoption
The need for long-term support and the challenge of running other applications, data and storage infrastructure alongside open source software is still a barrier for anyone planning to adopt open source, says Ray Titcombe, chairman of the Strategic Supplier Relationship Group.
He believes that users need to form a partnership with commercial suppliers, rather than open source suppliers. "Even today, with little spare cash around, it is an unwise IT professional that invests the future applications and office environment in software that does not have the future-proofing required."
But such partnerships can exist in the open source market too. For instance, users have developed Talend, an open source data integration tool which supports many data formats -an impossible task if the company had to write all the data connectors itself.
Can open source software help stretch IT budgets in a recession? Possibly. Theopen source software model allows IT departments to save on licence fees. But many users still feel commercial products have the edge.