Open source stands the pragmatism test

It's rarely used for ideological reasons, says Mark Rais

The decision to use open source software is rarely driven by philosophy or matters of principle. Most ICT leaders integrate or implement open source as a pragmatic solution.

Open source offers a unique answer to the problems of software licensing. For some, the burdens of increasingly complex licence management coupled with the increasing software expenditures are reason enough to make the switch. For others, specific open-source applications provide a viable means to address infrastructure scaling and future adaptability.

At America Online, a substantial migration to Open Source Linux became the means to address rising hardware and software costs associated with their personal finance infrastructure. By moving to Open Source, both platform and underlying OS costs were dramatically reduced. Code was also easily adapted and demonstrated comparable performance.

And where changes were needed to address unique business requirements, the underlying code could be legally modified relatively quickly and easily.

This was one of a countless number of situations where although cost savings were a primary motivation of open source implementation, the unique licensing enabled increased flexibility.

In another example, a Wellington based communications company required specially tailored solutions. The choice was to apply CentOS (a Linux variant based on Red Hat Enterprise).

Jethro Carr, the Linux systems engineer responsible for the project, says that if he’d tried to undertake the project with proprietary software he would been paying not only for the software but also for customisation.

“The project was feasible only through open source which offered the immediate option to customise,” he says

Open source can substantially benefit an organisation, especially where licensing cost reduction and customisation are crucial. Moreover, the use of open source is becoming increasingly popular.

Today, over 58% of all web servers world wide are Apache servers, according to a recent Netcraft survey.

Andrew Hill, director of Christchurch-based IT company Treshna Enterprises, says businesses often don’t know they are using open source software.

“They may know they have a Debian or a Red Hat server, but they won’t know too much about the open source movement, the ideals of the freedom granted by the GPL or the make-up of software on GNU/Linux.”

However, for business users the open source ideology or licence are less relevant than the fact that an open-source solution provides the means to deliver a product on time and to the required specifications.

Solutions-focused architecture and design can greatly benefit by an infusion of open source but does not necessarily need to rely entirely upon it. This balanced approach offers a substantial advantage to businesses that already apply various proprietary systems and then decide to integrate open source. In many situations, it becomes a best-of-breed selection process, where the most applicable software is chosen to meet a strategic business need.

It is prudent to assess any integration within a more holistic plan for implementing open standards. Another is to take risk-mitigating steps by performing a cost-benefits analysis for the continued use of proprietary solutions and the potential for alternatives.

Rais is Wellington-based technical writer who dedicates much of his time and energy to promoting Open Source, especially among the poor and where a technology divide exists.

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