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Open source promises advantages for business applications

Open source software may provide a cost-effective approach to building business applications, as well as ensuring transparency, but there are challenges to keep in mind

When starting up, many organisations assume they need to invest in expensive software packages as a platform for their services. However, open source software may provide a cost-effective alternative.

Coordinating professional software packages and their associated licensing can be a complex and time-consuming issue that organisations constantly need to manage to remain operational. Not only can this be expensive, but the licensing agreements can place unexpected limitations on the permitted uses and customisation of the software.

Often, a licensing agreement between a software provider and the licensee will be restricted to a certain number of active users working on a particular software package. However, if an organisation is actively recruiting more staff or expanding operations into new regions, this can lead to some services not being available due to the restrictive nature of licensing agreements.

Open source is different, as it is freely available and can be modified by users or other developers as they wish. Also, as the name implies, the development of the software is often an open and transparent community-driven process.

What are the advantages of open source?

One of the primary advantages of open source software is that it is often freely distributed, making it an ideal solution for new organisations when they have limited capital to work with. It can also be a cost-effective solution for mitigating significant overheads if large numbers of employees need access to the software.

While proprietary software will have a closed development cycle (to protect IP), the transparent nature of the development cycle for open source software means that it will have significant oversight that can identify potential issues in the code during development. This can benefit the security and stability of open source software.

The transparent nature of open source development continues after distribution, meaning it can subsequently be used by anybody. This allows developers to adapt the software to meet their specific business needs, rather than having to adapt their processes to meet the limitations of the software they use. Consequently, innovative enterprises may be able to offer something different and unique.

“When we started looking, we didn't know what platform we were going to use. We spoke with a developer who recommended us to use Grafana in this particular scenario,” says Satoshi Takano, CEO of ReactForge. “It helps us to be open to other possibilities.”

Furthermore, as organisations grow and expand, they can adapt the open source software they use to meet new demands. This flexibility enables agility by removing the need to invest in new software or licensing arrangements to meet emerging market trends.

The free use of open source software means that the issues around having sufficient licenses are no longer a concern. Open source software can be expanded and streamlined as required, without the costly problem of having too few or too many software licenses.

The transparent nature of open source software carries through into its deployment and usage, with the output also being open and freely available. Proprietary software may use a specific file format that can limit the usability of data that is generated, as any exported data may lose specific functionality or formatting. However, open source software makes the sharing of data simple and easy, as it tends to use generic or industry standard file formats. This flexibility allows data to be used in new ways, enabling users to freely explore different potential markets and data usage.

It also means that users are not tied into a specific vendor or software provider, thus enabling them to maximise the usage from data generated, by exploiting optimal functions in a variety of different software packages.

“Having come from Cisco, where I was in the collaboration group, I take that same approach to what we do here; that we should be pulling in from different sources and we don't want to be locked down with licensing and all the complexities that come with it,” says Takano. “For what we’re trying to do, I think the open source path is the right one.”

Recruitment opportunities

Since open source systems have become widely available, there are a lot more people using them. Not only are more people more familiar with using them, but developers are also familiar with coding them. This naturally makes recruitment easier.

There are many developers who are already familiar with open source software and coding as this is something they do in their spare time. This can be an indicator of someone who genuinely enjoys working in coding and development, rather than just approaching it as a job. Such a person will be more invested and productive within their role.

“In a lot of people, they get engaged in the open source, and without any pay,” says Peter Zaitsev, co-founder of Percona. “They are doing that because of the passion and they obviously become good. Because the core motivation was the love, not money, that changes a lot.”

Although proprietary software providers will often have a dedicated support package as part of their licensing agreement, open source is quite different. Open source has a thriving community of enthusiasts and followers online, who can offer assistance and advice. While this may not be as official as that offered through proprietary software, they are often just as knowledgeable and approachable.

That said, there is also the risk that coders and/or developers may inadvertently give away sensitive information when seeking assistance online. Therefore, the regular reminder of how staff should engage with the external parties is needed in order to protect confidential information and IP.

Despite the inherent benefits of using open source software, there are several issues that organisations need to be aware of before committing to using open source software.

What are the licensing permissions?

The primary point to consider is that open source is not just a single type of software distribution, but a catch-all term for multiple means by which software can be distributed and deployed. Currently, there are more than 80 different types of open-source license, but they generally fall into one of two categories: copyleft and permissive.

Copyleft: This type of open source licensing means that any software derived from the original open source code inherits the terms and conditions of the original license.

Permissive: This is a freer open source license, allowing for greater flexibility of the reuse, modification and distribution of the software.

However, these are generic terms for a variety of licenses and care is needed to ensure the terms and conditions of the license are not breached, as this could have costly implications.

Since various different types of open source licenses may be utilised, maintaining control and oversight of the licenses can become an increasingly complex issue as new software is acquired, developed and distributed. For this reason, a software asset management tool can be an important part of a business management suite, to ensure that all of the various software licenses are properly adhered to.

There is also the issue that permissions in licenses for open source software can change and evolve over time. These may change the permitted uses of the software, including rules relating to profit-making. Therefore, awareness must be maintained regarding any changes to licensing agreements.

“There is a lot of concern right now in open source as the term is very squishy. Everybody can call this stuff open source, but it’s not the specific OSI-approved term,” says Zaitsev. “People have to understand what is open source in terms of governance and which is open source of convenience or for marketing purposes.”

Technically challenging

Another aspect to consider is that open source software can be the technically challenging to implement. They can be hard to operate, as the user experience can be markedly different to proprietary software, which in turns means they can be difficult to adopt. For example, Microsoft Office has become the de-facto standard for office applications, therefore using a different software platform can be confusing for users, especially those who are not technically minded.

Compared to proprietary software, open source can be also be challenging to install. As open source is often distributed direct from the developer’s platform, there are no providers that can facilitate the distribution process. It is therefore incumbent upon the installer to ensure they are installing the correct version and remain up to date with the latest patches.

Open source also needs to come from a reputable source. For example, in 2020, malware was discovered in a set of repositories on the GitHub platform. This was discovered through the transparent nature of open source development, but it demonstrates the risk if caution is not maintained.

Despite the challenges, open source software remains a viable alternative to proprietary software. It can be especially useful for new and emerging organisations that wish to minimise capital expenditure while remaining flexible for adapting to shifting market trends.

While the freedom of use can be a benefit for expanding organisations, care must be taken to ensure that the accompanying licensing agreements are adhered to.

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