Open source

A decade ago, open source advocates faced an uphill battle when they tried to implement free software in an organisation, while proprietary vendors such as Microsoft spoke out publicly and fiercely against it. Barriers to implementation included worries about security, support, warranties and indemnities, and concerns that the quality of software that was freely available would be inferior to that produced on a commercial basis and licensed for a fee.

A decade later, the landscape has changed considerably. The open source model is well-established and far better understood, and a huge proportion of companies use open source software somewhere in their IT operations.

One reason is that many of the concerns have disappeared. A recent Future of Open Source Survey found that 72% of respondents use open source software because they believe it provides better security than proprietary alternatives, and 80% believe it offers better quality than proprietary software.

These survey findings correspond with the day-to-day experience of IT professionals such as Mark Winiberg, whose company, Charter Software, offers open source deployment and training. "Ten years ago, open source software was a hard sell," he says. "These days, I am simply not seeing the same level of opposition to it."

Procurement policies biased against FOSS

That's not to say that barriers to open source software have disappeared completely. There's evidence, for example, that many organisations' software procurement policies are still designed for a world of proprietary software and therefore make open source solutions problematic to use.

Examples of this are policies dictating that any prospective vendor's financial figures be scrutinised, and that the vendor must have been in business for three years. How do you scrutinise the financials of an open source project?

Clearly, this type of policy needs updating to reflect the reality of the open source world and to prevent open source software from being effectively ruled out, says Simon Phipps, the president of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), a nonprofit that advocates open source software.

Even when procurement policies don't rule out open source solutions explicitly in this way, they often still have an unintentional bias towards proprietary software, according to Mark Johnson, development manager at OSS Watch, a body that provides advice on open source software.

"It may be that the way solutions are investigated by organisations actually favors companies that get license fees and are therefore able to offer presales support. Because the business models work differently, you may have to pay a company to come in and do a demonstration of an open source solution," Johnson says.

"What that means is that companies may need to be aware that they have to be more hands on with open source software," he adds. "They can't just expect to sit down and watch a PowerPoint presentation."

The view that there's an unintentional bias against open source software is echoed by Alain Williams, the head of Linux consultancy Parliament Hill Computers. He points out that because proprietary software has been around longer than open source software, proprietary software vendors have had had more of an opportunity to grow into large companies.

"Often there's a condition for a large project that it mustn't account for more than 20% of the vendors' turnover," Williams says. Since proprietary companies are more likely to be larger, more open source vendors will fall foul of this rule than proprietary software vendors. That's another unintentional source of anti-open source bias, he says.

The fact that most open source projects have a considerably smaller marketing budget than proprietary software vendors further exacerbates this bias, Williams says. "That means getting the marketing message across is more difficult for open source software."

Open source software communities stable and customisable

Despite the prevalence of open source software, some organisations still have lingering worries about the viability and stability of open source projects, preferring to deal with a large commercial organisation with an established financial track record to minimise perceived risk.

"We certainly see companies worried that they don't see a mega corporation standing behind open source software, and wonder if they can buy in to it," says Greg Soper, managing director of SugarCRM consultancy and development house SalesAgility. "I counter that by pointing out that we at SalesAgility are stable."

Soper also points out to potential customers that SugarCRM has a healthy community that surrounds it, which is a good gauge of a healthy project. "Even if there was one company backing the project and that company went away, a healthy community ensures that the project continues," he says.

Soper adds that some objections to particular open source solutions stem from feature comparisons with proprietary software solutions. However, organisations can often add the features that they want, so this kind of comparison rooted in the proprietary "you get what you're given" mind-set is often irrelevant.

"Why not get the open source software that you plan to use for free, and then use the money that you would otherwise have spent on proprietary license fees to modify the open source software to meet your needs more closely?" he asks. "Why pay for software that's the same for all users when you can pay to have something that's unique?"

Paul Wander, one of the founders of Inviqa, a PHP consultancy, says he often sees resistance to open source software come from one part of an organisation: The IT department. Now that the buying decisions for many solutions come from the marketing department and the CMO rather than the IT department and the CIO, though, this becomes less of a barrier to open source software adoption.

"Many organisations have old-style IT departments that have a narrow-eyed suspicion of open source software, but increasingly they can't do anything to stop it because business people are 100% behind it," he says. "So much of the innovative customer-facing software these days is open source, and this is being pushed by the business side and the CMO."

Estimates of the proportion of large businesses that use open source software somewhere in the organisation today vary from around 70% right up to as much as 98%. Even staunch opponents such as Microsoft have now begun to embrace it. As the few remaining barriers are overcome, that figure is likely to rise even further in the near future.