Five open source factors for CIOs

SearchCIO columnist Paul Gillin offers five good reasons to adopt open source -- and five potential pitfalls to avoid.


Will 2006 be the year you finally go open source?

If it is, you'll have plenty of company. Corporate giants have gone public with their endorsements of open source software, and Gartner predicts that by 2010 IT organizations will use open source in 80% of their infrastructure software investments.

But going open isn't a no-brainer yet, and there are good reasons some IT organizations are hesitating. Here are five popular justifications for using open source software and their corresponding downsides.

Costs

Pro: Open source is cheaper

More open source info

CIOs explore open source options

Answers to open source questions

Free software was a lunatic-fringe idea just 10 years ago, but what a difference a decade makes. Today there are about 100,000 open source projects in various stages of development, including software for nearly every area of IT infrastructure. The economics of software are changing, and users are the big winners.

Con: You pay on the back end
Free is no bargain if the costs of support and staff outstrip the cost of commercial alternatives. If you go open source, you're taking on more responsibility for your own support. If hiring is difficult for you, turning to open source may be a bad idea. Also, many vendors are moving to a support-centered business model for open source, so check your contracts for hidden fees.

Fixes and enhancements

Pro: Open source is better quality
Community development leads to more reliable and secure code. Fixes and enhancements are built and distributed faster because the developers are also the users. And if you don't like something about the software, you can just fix it yourself.

Con: There's no accountability
In IT parlance, it's called ''one throat to choke," and it's a compelling argument for the status quo. If a program doesn't work, there's a vendor on the hook to make it work, and users have a weapon -- their license fees -- to make sure the vendor delivers the goods. The business costs of scouring the Web for a solution to your problem can quickly outweigh the benefits of free licenses.

Licensing

Pro: Licenses are clear
At six pages, the GNU General Public License (GPL) is a model of simplicity compared with commercial alternatives. And the license's basic stipulation -- that software changes that are released to anyone must be released to everyone -- couldn't be easier to understand. Since the GPL is so widely adopted, fewer resources are wasted on legal costs and fighting over arcane language and exceptions.

Con: Not as simple as it looks
Licensing concerns may be the best argument against open source. In fact, there are two versions of the GPL, with a third in development. And there are more than 60 other forms of free software licenses, some unique only to certain vendors. The GPL also contains some vague language and hasn't been updated to reflect changes like the distribution of software as a service. And Lindon, Utah-based SCO Group Inc. has sued users over claims of copyright infringement. At least with a single vendor's license, you know what you're up against.

Community acceptance

Pro: Protection against obsolescence
Open source lives in the community, which means there will always be people to support it. And you can always fall back on using the source code to make your own modifications.

Con: There's a lot of dead software out there
The reality is that open source projects die all the time because of lack of market acceptance or developer disinterest. And as more projects are kicked off and subsequently abandoned, this problem will worsen unless you choose the most popular products because you might get hosed.

Staffing

Pro: Skills are standardized
As packages like Linux and Apache become mainstream and scripting languages coalesce, open source skills will become commodities, leading to lower costs and larger pools of talent.

Con: Turnover increases
Standardized skills mean more mobility and more turnover. If you're Merrill Lynch, you probably don't have to worry, but small businesses and nonprofits, which are the best candidates for open source, are going to have a harder time competing for talent.

No matter where you fall on the decision-making spectrum, one fact is clear: Open source is gaining momentum as an enterprise option. Even if you don't choose that option, you owe it to yourself to learn more about the possibilities.

Paul Gillin is a technology writer and consultant and former editor-in-chief of TechTarget. His Web site is www.gillin.com.

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