Kate's Comment

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

Open Source: The un-eaten free-lunch

There is such a thing as a free lunch, and it is called open sauce software! Er, open source even. Did I forget breakfast again? Anyway! I am constantly surprised that, despite its massive and growing use in many areas, open source software solutions, and the benefits therein, are either unknown or shunned even by quite technically knowledgeable people when it can save businesses a lot of money.

So the first thing to address had better be “what is it?”. Well it is actually a somewhat complex concept with lots of (I think) good stuff about free redistribution and openness, but from a users perspective it all boils down to this: open source applications are free software which is built, maintained and supported by a community of developers and users. It is, in my limited awareness, the only functional example of communism at work. If you want a fuller definition have a look at the open source initiative’s official version.

At one end of the spectrum, most small businesses could save quite a lot of money per-head by switching to some open source solutions. I’m not advocating going totally Linux at a user-level; I think that is still only appropriate for hard-core techies and large scale installations where the users are not allowed much flexibility – the Munich city council recently “went Linux” for example. Personally, I think that it is important for users, especially valued employees, to be able to customise and fiddle with their working environments. You would not expect people to have a pre-defined desk layout after all, would you? That is changing, but for now I think the retraining burden for small businesses would eliminate the benefits of going totally Linux in any event.

I am a case in point, and bear in mind that I am a serious professional and my laptop’s environment is critical to my work. To the right is a piccy of my desktop – I am running Windows XP which means things like Nokia PC suite, various games and all Sony’s strange hardware “just work”, but that is where my payments for software end. I do not have Microsoft Office, instead I use Mozilla Thunderbird for e-mail, calendar and contacts management (Evolution is even-more like Outlook if you prefer), OpenOffice for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations, and I use Opera* instead of Internet Explorer to name just a few of my favorite free applications.

My and others’ choice of an alternative Web browser to Internet Explorer is not about always cost (IE comes with Windows after all). The huge rise in popularity (usage share now at roughly 12%) of the open source browser Mozilla Firebird is an example of why open source software can be better; people use it on Windows because of improved functionality and usability rather than cost, after all it is built and developed by the users for the users.

At the other end of the spectrum, enterprise-level applications can benefit from open source software, and this is one area where I certainly would advocate the use of a Linux operating system. Take hosting an e-commerce site for example; why use Windows server software, IIS and MS SQL (perhaps costing £130/server/month extra) when Linux, Apache and MySQL will be cheaper and, in our experience, more reliable? Not only do we tend to find Linux operating systems (Debian for example) to be more resilient, but also easier to administer. Windows is a very opaque operating system for all users, expert or otherwise, whereas Linux gives systems administrators the option to “poke around under the bonnet”, often making troubleshooting and general admin a great deal easier. The upshot is that the administrators can spend less time managing the system (which saves even more money) and if there is an issue it can be resolved more swiftly.

I have no vested interest in promoting Linux & open source over Windows (as a company we offer both – we do not restrict customer choice), but in our experience it is cheaper, better and it makes our lives’ easier, and I think that improving awareness of open source solutions could save UK businesses a lot of money and consequently make us more competitive. After all, the UK government thinks its good enough for them, so why shouldn’t you?

* Opera is not open source, as pointed out in the comment below – it is free but proprietary software and there is an important distinction.