Open source software - Essential Guide

Free and open source software is seeing steady adoption among small to large UK businesses, as they begin to take it to the heart of their organisations for key enterprise applications in a bid to lower IT costs.

Free and open source software is seeing steady adoption among small to large UK businesses, as they begin to take it to the heart of their organisations for key enterprise applications in a bid to lower IT costs.

Good enterprise-class open source support and services have also helped to drive adoption, as much as the fact that free and open source (FOSS) software products are continually maturing and improving both on the server and the desktop.

What is free and open source software?

Free and open source software, termed F/OSS, FOSS, or FLOSS (free/libre/open source software), is software that is licensed liberally to grant the right of users to study, change, and improve its design through the availability of its source code – hence the ‘open source’ moniker.

Both free and open source software share similar development models, based on a community of users sharing and developing the application code.

However, free software has a philosophy of freedom of use and development, whereas open source focuses on the strengths of its peer-to-peer development model.

How is open source software licensed?

An open source license is a copyright license for computer software that makes the source code available under terms that allow for modification and redistribution without having to pay the original author.

These licenses may have basic restrictions, such as a requirement to preserve the name of the authors and the copyright statement within the code.

One popular set of open source software licenses are those approved by the Open Source Initiative (OSI) based on their Open Source Definition (OSD).

How do the commercial and open source communities get along?

Interestingly, commercial companies such as SAP, IBM and Microsoft have an interest in the open source model, with IBM and HP having a long history in open source innovation.

In July 2009, Microsoft, for the first time ever, released driver code to the Linux community, saying that it was responding to demands from the two user communities.

Microsoft developed a technology sharing relationship with Novell in 2006, establishing a joint development lab in 2007 to explore how the commercial and open source software communities might work more closely together.

The move was met with a mixture of interest and scepticism, and eventually led to the two giants working even more closely in 2008.

What sorts of open source products are available?

Pretty much any desktop or server application you can think of, from email and collaboration through to project management will have an open source equivalent.

One of the more popular Microsoft Office alternatives is OpenOffice, which provides equivalent office productivity applications to Microsoft for free, with files that interoperate - to a great extent - with Microsoft’s.

In terms of operating systems, open source has had some very powerful and popular operating platforms that have been available for many years, such as Linux (including Ubuntu and Debian GNU/Linux), and FreeBSD.

The open source database system MySQL is being used in large-scale enterprise systems, powering for example the advertising engine on Google, and the whole Facebook site.

Open source is also being used to run major chunks of, for example, the internet or financial and banking infrastructures.

In fact, open source software is doing so well, that open source hardware is now on the way!

Why don’t more enterprises use open source?

Although open source can be a great solution in tough economic times, many businesses see using open source as risky.

Some businesses have a perception that open source licenses are viral, and that the applications lack formal support and training. Others believe that products change too much, and lack a long term roadmap.

Businesses may also want the comfort of having a relationship with a commercial account manager from a software firm, rather than relying on the developer community for help and support.

What sort of support is there for Open Source?

Over the years, the open source community has been attempting to meet the demand for high-quality open source support, from enterprise users.

As a result, over the past few years, new enterprise service companies have emerged and entered the area dominated by the likes of Red Hat, Novell and IBM, which do offer robust enterprise-level support for open source products.


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