Kate's Comment

Thoughts on British ICT, energy & environment, cloud computing and security from Memset's MD

Running a Business on Open Source Software

For several years now, we’ve been running all our business systems over the ‘net  (including instant messaging, email, document management, project management & collaboration) by using open source software. Both Nick & I are huge fans of open source, so I thought I’d share why and how we use it within Memset.

As of 2008, 85 percent of businesses were using open source software, according to Gartner. That percentage has probably increased since then as more and more businesses find that they consistently get great value – and the desired ROI – from open source software.

We turned to open source for a number of reasons:

  • Price. You don’t need to pay licensing to Microsoft anymore, simply download the open source software and install it, and don’t pay a penny. Furthermore, you usually get unrestricted access to the source code enabling you to modify it to suit your requirements.
  • Flexibility. Once you have the software installed you are free to host your applications wherever you like. This means you no longer need to put all your information in one basket, say with Google, so instead you’re able to separate the software from the host and own your own data. A good example of how to achieve that would be Zimbra; an open source suite of office applications which can be hosted by any managed hosting provider. We have customers who rent a virtual machine from us and have us install Zimbra on it.
  • Improved Productivity. By using open source software and adapting it to suit our needs, with fairly minimal development effort, we’ve been able to build on those foundations to automate a large number of our processes such as account billing, administration, provisioning, maintenance and monitoring activities so that they require very little staff input.
  • Desktop Free. Because they are all Web based it makes it really easy for people to work from home, or anywhere for that matter. We have now migrated most of our staff to ‘nix-based systems (mostly Linux, but some of us use MacOS), and all they need is just a browser and an email client. Firefox & Thunderbird are certainly enterprise-strength, for example, and there are plenty of solid open source server-side solutions.
  • Increased Security. In my opinion, open source applications tend to be even more secure than their commercial equivalents as open source communities are generally able to find and fix security vulnerabilities much quicker than their corporate counterparts. The very weakness pointed out by software companies like Microsoft (ie. that the source code is visible) is in reality its greatest security strength.

But what if it stops being supported?

Perhaps the biggest objection to open source I hear is, “But what if the solution I’m using stops being supported by the open source community?”. First off, you have this problem with commercial software; what if the supplier fails, or in the case of one like Microsoft what happens when they change version and stop supporting yours.

That is not the real answer though; one of the real beauties of open source software is that it is designed to be, well, open. All the solutions we use (see below) are based on open database architectures (often MySQL) with lots of documentation, so that even in the worst case scenario of the package no longer being supported, all of our business information is available in an open, accessible format, requiring only a little DBA time to extract. Try doing the same with a proprietary software’s internal data base!

Also, because the solutions are self-hosted (ie. you’re getting the software from someone other than the person providing the hosting) you are in total control of your own data. We do not use Google Docs, for example, mainly because I don’t want all my company information to be stored on a random server somewhere in the world with no guarantees of security.

Example: TRAC (Integrated Project Management & Wiki)

We use a mixture of in-house developed system and open source solutions such as Trac (project management & Wiki) and Sugar CRM to deliver an interlinking suite of information management tools which are available to everyone in the company.

Customer information is stored in a master central database, and by using rapid software development platforms like Django we have been able to quickly and cheaply add all the features and tools we need with our own internal development team.

However, the key element in the context of information management is probably our Wiki; it contains all procedural information and the distilled wisdom of the people in the company. You get complete version control and logging for free with the software, and those built-in auditing features helped make getting our ISO9001 accreditation a breeze.

Trac is invaluable for sharing information between teams, keeping track of changes to documents and projects, listing outstanding issues, assigning jobs and creating visibility of each others’ workflow. Being able to have an organised central location where everyone can go is great. It is certainly a lot better then trying to pass around .doc files from one person to the other, or constantly uploading and downloading .doc files to and from Sharepoint and having to worry about out of date versions. And, as its Web-based, you can access your data online from any computer, anywhere, secured and encrypted over HTTPS.

Example: SugarCRM

Sugar OS is an open source CRM application bringing a feature-rich set of business processes that enhance marketing effectiveness, drive sales performance, improve customer satisfaction and provide executive insight into business performance.

At Memset we use SugarCRM to improve productivity and sales effectiveness through the sales lead management functionality.

Example: Request Tracker

RT is an open source issue tracking and workflow platform. We use this software for all our customer technical support. It allows us to keep track of and assign assign tickets and to monitor who is working on which tasks, what’s already been done and when the tasks were completed.

Example: Openfire (chat)

Openfire, is an open source XMPP/Jabber server for instant messaging. Sure, you could use MSN, but we prefer not to have Microsoft listening in on our corporate communcations. We self-host and fully encrypt our internal instant messaging chat.

These are just a small selection of the open source solutions we have implemented at Memset. Also, despite us having a lot of technical know-how, you really do not need to be an expert to use these open source systems.

Even if you do not have the very basic systems administration skills in-house there are plenty of companies like Memset who will happily host and manage these services for you, while still giving you full control and data-ownership. With more and more companies looking to Cloud-based business management services like these, open source really is coming of age, even for the most security-conscious companies; Memset is fully ISO27001 certified and can ensure that your business-critical data remains 100% under your control, within UK borders.

Open source should be considered as a viable option for your business as it provides better value for money, lower costs, increased productivity and improved security.

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