“The best things in life are free,” sang Barrett Strong in the much-covered Money, (That’s What I Want). But it’s not an adage that has generally appealed to IT managers: there’s been a suspicion that free tools are an inconvenience at best and, at worst, a dangerous way to bring unwanted software to an enterprise.

There has been some historical precedent. Most CIOs will have a horror story of how peer-to-peer applications, downloaded by their users, slowed down their corporate networks. And more recently, the growth of VoIP company Skype has not been enthusiastically endorsed by IT staff. Yes, the system offers free phone calls, but there’s a growing awareness that the application could allow malware to creep on to the corporate networks as well as increasing the corporate network overhead.

The situation, however, is beginning to change, as managers realise that a blanket ban on all free software could be counter-productive. Operating systems such as Red Hat, Ubuntu and Apache are now well-established in the corporate mind and OpenOffice has its adherents.

At a recent seminar in the City, Sourcefire’s Martin Rosch, the inventor of the open-source intrusion detection system Snort, addressed several CIOs looking after enterprise systems.

Popular free software programmes

Apart from the ones mentioned in the text, other programmes that are used within enterprises are:

ShareWatch shows IT managers what files and printers are being shared on the system and by whom; Nagios, a Linux-based network management system: Nessus, a network vulnerability scanner and WireShark, a protocol analyser.

There are hundreds more though – anyone interested could easily find a programme to suit their needs.

He said that managers were more interested in products that could perform effectively rather than look at how much they cost.

Of course, companies don’t operate on an altruistic basis and they all follow some revenue-generating methods. In the case of Snort, for example, users can download the basic programme for nothing but then have to subscribe to get the up-to-date rules – non-subscribers can wait 30 days and get them for nothing. The asset and network management company, Spiceworks, has another approach – the software is absolutely free, but users receive ads that are used to finance the software.

Another network management company, SolarWinds, offers a variety of free tools, including the recent NetFlow configurator for Cisco device configuration, in the hope that users who are happy with the free tools, will then buy the not-so-free advanced tools. The list goes on, with each company looking for its own way to market and each offering something to enterprises.

For the budget-aware CIO, such tools could be a real asset. They offer an opportunity to assess new software cheaply. In some cases, they could provide management for smaller, discrete IT projects or installations. In some cases, they could be installed in just one datacentre or in one particular office.

We’ve reached the point where the negative connotations of free software are slowly being eroded by the positive ones. We’re obviously never going to reach the point where a major enterprise will run free software – although it’s certainly possible for a small business to do so – but there are now plenty of packages providing valuable business and technical functionality being used alongside more expensive software.

Free software terms

When dealing with free software, it’s important to get terminology right. Open source software, free software and freeware and not synonymous terms – although they’re all interconnected.

Freeware is proprietary software that happens to have been made available free of charge. Free software is software where the code is open to all to use and modify. Open source software is really the same as free software but has been adopted to emphasise that “free” in this case as is in “speech” not as in “beer”.