Long before computers, iPads, smartphones and a myriad of other electronic devices appeared in our homes, most computers were sold for specific purposes. Have a bank? Then you need this particular mainframe. Own an insurance company? Then you need this machine. Early on pioneers like IBM figured out that in order to sell the hardware, you had to create the software. So they created the banking, insurance and other programs that were used to essentially sell the hardware – the software was free, but the mainframe to put it on – well, that cost you!
Today most businesses don’t have to worry about what vendor to purchase their hardware from since it’s all pretty much universal. Instead, they have to worry about which software they will use to run the business on that hardware. There are numerous choices, from pre-packaged off-the-shelf solutions, in-house designed and developed solutions, custom contracted designs, etc. Then there’s open source – a relative newcomer to most businesses, but in particular, one that is growing in acceptance at companies around the world.
So what exactly is open source? Generally speaking, it is software that is provided under an open license – you get the source code and then you are free to do with it what you wish. You can run it as-is, customize it or use it as part of another package. Businesses have warmed up to open source computing in recent years because it allows them to be more agile in choosing solutions and software that fit their business needs. They are no longer locked into one particular vendor, or locked out of software altogether, because the price tag is too high. It allows them to put much of their in-house programming and IT talent to work designing the specific software that contains the business rules for the company instead of redesigning common applications – like accounting packages, web servers, etc.
Of course, as the saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Free comes with drawbacks – the one of the biggest drawbacks for any business looking to go the open source route, is the question of support for the system they are running. Just imagine a business using an open source accounting package and it fails – without support the amount of time and potential lost revenue the business would suffer could be enormous. It is for this reason that many companies, when looking at the open source route, do so not with the free price tag in mind, but instead they think about value-added support services offered by third-party companies.
While the software may be free, many companies pay for these support contracts to ensure that when things go wrong there is someone at the other end of the phone to assist them. A number of vendors have turned to this model, taking open source software such as the Linux OS, and packaging it with support services and offering that to customers. In fact, this trend of bundling open source software with support and implementation services has become so popular, that many commercial vendors that may already provide us with products such as HP servers, Sun servers and software, have started looking at offering similar programs or revamping their product lines to take advantage of open source developments.
So is open source right for your business? That all depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Nothing is ever a perfect fit for every business, and each business must decide what it wants to spend its limited resources on. However, for most companies, the road to open source computing is looking bright and widening by the day. Proprietary, closed software packages may one day be something we only talk about in the IT history books.