Being smart about open source software: 5 practical tips for government use


Being smart about open source: 5 practical tips for government use

There is much written about the pros and cons of using open source software, generally with more emphasis on the pros. Open source evangelists have even convinced foreign governments (India and the United Kingdom, to name a few) to go so far as mandating the use of open source software. To make smart decisions, however, government agencies must carefully consider the project in question.  Here are five tips for making sure important questions are not overlooked.

1. Avoid silly policies and mandates

The overall cost of dependency on a piece of software in an organization tends to be significantly greater than the direct purchase or licensing cost. The effectiveness and benefit of a piece of software to your organization are determined more by its fitness for your purpose than the price tag. Getting the right tool for the right job matters more than whether there was an initial purchase or licensing expense.

Favoring open source mainly due to initial cost considerations, therefore, can be a mistake, as can ruling it out due to (sometimes unfounded) concerns about open source inherently lacking security.

Formal policies favoring or discouraging open source are based on broad generalizations. There are clear benefits to considering and even favoring open source options, but the “openness” of it is rarely a significant factor in whether it will be a good fit for your organization.

Rather than follow too-broad-to-be-useful guidance about whether open source is good or not, it’s better to consider each tool or piece of software you need and then make an educated decision on whether a commercial or open source option is the right choice for the project at hand. And if you do select open source, my second point suggests taking a fresh view of it.

2. Think of the open source tool as a vendor

Government agencies are familiar with vendor selection processes, which involve such considerations as initial cost, service-level needs and availability and cost of support, training and services. When considering open source as an option for any software need, ask the same tough questions of open source options as you would when selecting a vendor.

Open source usually wins in the “initial cost” category, of course. Vendors of commercial products that compete with open source solutions know that their value proposition must be sufficiently compelling for customers to go through an acquisition process instead of just downloading free software and getting started. Many prove their options are indeed worth the price, even when free and open source options are available.

Do the research and compare the options. Trust proven more than open. There is a theory that open source software, which is available to the eyes of many, has an inherent quality advantage. But most open source projects, despite being open to all, are in practice supported by only a few people. The “many eyes” benefit indeed applies to many much-used and much-loved open source systems, but the same benefit also applies to much-used and much-loved commercial systems. More paid staff support systems that are popular and profitable. So it's critical to consider more than just price.

3. Make the call at the right level

Often, open source software sneaks its way into organizations at the lowest levels. Individuals with little authority often do not feel empowered to consider other options that require spending money, so they frequently see open source as the only option. In some instances, these individuals may well prefer the open source tool, but in others they may believe a better option is not available to them simply because it’s not free.

Problems occur when a “free is the only option” or “free is the preferred option” mentality is applied to critical tools and systems that have a great impact on productivity. The capabilities and limitations of an entire organization are determined, to a large degree, by the capabilities and limitations of the tools they choose and use. Although direct cost matters, it is only one of many factors to consider. The impact to the capability, productivity and effort for the organization may well have greater costs.

4. Avoid vendor lock-in with open operating systems, tools, standards

A big consideration or reason for favoring open source is to avoid being locked in with a particular vendor. Being locked in can be a serious problem, especially if the vendor goes out of business or the relationship sours. Government organizations are particularly susceptible to vendor lock-in because of their scale of operations. The farther down in the technology stack that you go, with operating systems being the lowest practical level, the greater the risk of vendor lock-in as a serious problem becomes.

Yet open-source projects with too few active contributors can pose another sort of lock-in risk. So when assessing options, open standards can offer valuable insurance.  

Commercial vendors commonly collaborate with competitors and open source communities alike using open standards, and those standards can help avoid or reduce the potential impact of vendor lock-in. For example, many commercial organizations are investing heavily in virtualization and cloud technologies with the OpenStack standard. In some cases, preference should be given to vendors using open standards, so long as the standard itself is well established.

5. Encourage commercial to open source product conversions

Many commercial vendors produce open source software alongside their commercial offerings, and some commercial products convert to being open source. This can happen, for example, when a software product is deemed no longer profitable enough to justify continued resource investments, or when an organization's shifting focus means it no longer has the staff or capability to maintain it. Making products open source gives customers and motivated users a broader range of support options, with minimal cost to the vendor.

Government agencies should encourage vendors to make products open source when they no longer wish to invest in or support them. Doing so would help reduce the negative impact of vendor lock-in on old products. Because government agencies often use software products longer than vendors are willing to support them, arrangements to convert such systems to open source could benefit all.

About the Author

C. Thomas Tyler is a senior consultant with Perforce Software.

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