Open Source Software – Useful or Not?

Copyright (c) 2008 Adam Nowak

The aim of this paper is to acquaint the reader with the idea underlying the distribution of Open Source Software and to compare the main features of this solution with the features of commercial software. Particular emphasis is placed on describing the usefulness of Open Source in business applications.

Open Source ideology

The idea of Open Source Software (OSS) has existed for many years. Its main purpose is to hand over with the program its source code and the right to use the program and its code for free. This condition refers to all kinds of program distribution – both commercial sale and free distribution .

Open Source Software originates from non-commercial environments underlining the quality and availability of a program and not striving to maximize the sales profit by all means. These were university students, groups of geek programmers, and companies combining science with business that contributed to the popularization of this program distribution form. GNU projects and open kernel system unix -Linux project played a very important role.

The most popular and most commonly used version of Open Source license is GNU GPL. On the basis of this licence most free software is distributed worldwide (including the Linux kernel). This license – in comparison with commercial licenses – protects the user’s rights and not the rights of the producer.

The Open Source Initiative is a big problem for the companies selling commercial software with a closed source code. Such companies are geared towards gaining profit from the sale of their products. In order to be profitable they usually try to make their clients dependent on them. The financial policy or the desire to outrun competition often lead to launches of imperfect products. Arguments against OSS put forward by the closed source software providers are seemingly right: Lack of responsibility for an OSS product, lack of support, anonymous authors. In fact it’s just marketing illusion and an attempt to protect one’s own business. Why? Responsibility for the product and OSS support can be bought as an additional service provided by a number of third parties and the case of author’s anonymity is solved by the openness of the code – anyone can control and modify OSS either on their own or with the help of freely chosen suppliers. It makes the client independent from the supplier after completing the transaction/buying the product. The client can but doesn’t have to cooperate with the subject that sold him the program.

Open standards

Commercial software suppliers use different techniques to make their client product-dependant. The most popular technique is using closed and undocumented standards, i.e. file format known only to the producer.

The nature of OSS makes such dealings impossible – the openness of the source code doesn’t allow the program to hide its mechanisms. Open Source licenses (e.g. GNU GPL) make it impossible to enter reserved codes to Open Source projects, e.g.. these under licensing fees. Therefore, there is no possibility that some third parties in the future will have claims towards any persons using an Open Source program made available on the basis of such a license.

While developing OSS programs the programmers often use popular, well documented and free of charge technologies – open standards. Open standards make it possible to use software supplied by different companies and make possible to the buyer to avoid dependency on the conditions dictated by one supplier. As a result, the client can choose the solution with the best ratio of price to quality. Open standards provide great flexibility, important in combining different IT solutions, and contribute to permanence and availability of information.

Advantages of Open Source

From the point of view of business applications, the most distinctive feature of OSS is the low price of such solution. When implementing an OSS, the client pays – usually little or even nothing – for the product only at the moment of purchase; the problem of buying and renewing the costly license for each user doesn’t exist in this case. Since the client receives the right to use and modify the product he can redistribute it… even for free. That is why OSS programs are usually tree of charge and their suppliers gain profit only from services related to the support of products offered by them. Care for the quality of services is essential here – an unsatisfied client may at any time decide to choose another supplier (which usually is impossible with commercial applications).

The use of Open Source software increases the reliability and safety of IT systems: the user can verify, with the help of third parties or by himself, how exactly the OSS program works. Without any risk he can decide to use this software in critical branches of his/her activity. Closed Source Software lack this particular feature – sometimes modules stealing user’s data are secretly installed there; they spy on the user’s work or allow unauthorized persons to use the system resources of the “victim”.

The permanence of Open Source software plays a vital role ‘suppliers of such software cannot make their clients resign from the old version of the product and buy a new one. The strategy of “closing support” of a given version of the product, often used by commercial companies, cannot be used in the case of OSS – if the company finishes supporting a given product, their role can be overtaken by other (competing) subjects or the client him/herself – because they have access to full source code of the product! As a result, the client becomes the only subject responsible for the program lifecycle.

Who uses Open Source?

Until recently OSS was reserved for academic / scientific centres and IT enthusiasts. A condition to use this software was rich IT expertise and experience. Lack of vast commercial support caused little interest in Open Source software among business circles.

For several years there has been a dynamic increase in the interest in OSS projects in administrative and business environments. Governments of many countries (especially members of the European Union) insist that the offices subordinate to them use OSS. Open Source software is more and more willingly used in business (e.g. in big banks) and military centres. The main reasons for the interest in Open Source software are as follows:

The market of commercial solutions is monopolized heavily. The concerns producing Closed Source systems demand high price for the possibility to use their products. OSS gives the same products for much less money. An additional advantage of OSS is its independence from the product’s supplier and guarantee of permanence.

The extent of hacking and misuses in the world wide web in the recent years has revealed the dark side of the Closed Source software – low quality of the code (known only to the producer) contributed to many gaps in the safety of systems.

The code of Open Source programs is reviewed already during their development by many people interested in it. The OSS project is constantly audited by its users – errors found in it are deleted almost immediately (by the author of the application or by third parties that have full access to the source code). As an effect, the reaction time for a “hole” is measured in hours and not in days/months, as in the case of Closed Source software (it sometimes even happens – although less frequently – that the producer denies the existence of a discovered error).

Scandals related to introducing a spying code to Closed Source software (extorted from producers for example by military agencies) undermined the sense of using such a solution in strategic applications. The possibility of auditing and monitoring the code is priceless in these areas where safety is the ultimate condition. Therefore, the governments of many countries (now mainly European) put pressure on the army and administration not to u

Closed Source solutions (currently mainly of American origin). For instance, the governments of France, Germany, Italy, Finland, and the Netherlands use OSS in central government systems (eg. insurance systems). The official website of the Dutch government encouraging OSS usage can serve as an example. There are more and more big companies on the market that support Open Source projects. Giants such as IBM, HP, SGI and Novell willingly install advanced and free Linux software on their servers. These companies obtain profit not from the distribution of software but from the sales of hardware and services.

Many advanced technologies deriving from commercial and closed operating system are made available by their owners for free and introduced into the Linux kernel. A great file system XFS created by Sylicon Graphics, Inc. and derived from the Irix system can be an example here. Now the Linux system is developed not only by enthusiasts but also by teams of engineers representing such companies as Intel, SGI, IBM, and Novell.

More and more small and medium size companies also offer commercial support of Open Source Software as far as implementation, modification and servicing are concerned. This creates favourable conditions to the application of Open Source Software in solving business problems.