Open source vs proprietary software

By Martin Courtney
05 Apr 2011 View Comments
Concept artwork showing Open Source Technology Platform in a Community

The uptake of open source software within businesses has increased considerably over the past 10 years, almost to the point, say analysts, where there are more organisations now using some form of open source tool than not.

Further reading

But it is important to remember that not all open source software is the same – quality, cost and support resources vary considerably from one application or operating system to another – factors that will ultimately determine whether a business has a positive or negative experience of the technology.

Peter Dawes-Huish is chief executive of LinuxIT, a Bristol-based Linux technology and services firm that offers advice on Linux adoption to businesses of all sizes, as well as local councils and central government organisations. The company has just enjoyed its best ever trading year since its formation in 1999, with revenue in 2010 up 50 per cent over the previous year.

“People bundle open source software into a bucket – there are good open source products and not so good open source products,” he says. “There are any number of evangelist organisations that will talk about open source being the answer to everything, when of course it is not. Like any other software, it needs to be selected carefully and appropriately for its use.”

Research from analyst Gartner polled 547 IT professionals in organisations from 11 countries in July and August 2010, and found that more than half had already adopted open source software. Of these, 22 per cent had deployed open source software in all departments, but a much higher number – 46 per cent – had used open source tools for specific tasks or application projects, indicating many are happier to dip their toe in the open source water, at least initially, either instead of or before rolling it out broadly. A further 21 per cent said they were evaluating whether or not open source applications were suitable for use in their organisation.

“There is a very strong propaganda blogger focus among the open source community that tends to treat open source as an ideology,” says Mark Driver, research vice president at Gartner. “Even some organisations treat it as an ethical issue and that tends to muddy the waters.”

Why use open source?
It is clear that there seems to be ample demand for commercially supported open source software delivery models that present a viable alternative to proprietary applications in a variety of business cases. And the advantage usually associated with open source – lower licensing and support costs – is not always what the IT department is either aiming for, or can realistically achieve. 

Driver says open source software can often create the “illusion” of cost savings, but in most cases bring a broader set of options and more freedom. The benefits of its adoption, he says, fit three distinct categories: cost, optimisation and flexibility.

“There is a universal assumption of cost savings for open source but we found that varies dramatically,” he says.

“That is not to say that people do not save money, only that it is not automatic. A great number of the people we ask why they are considering a move to open source do say cost savings at first. However, when we crunch the numbers – not just the total cost of ownership, which is virtually zero, but also the maintenance and support costs, plus the risk of cutting out any particular vendor – only 50 per cent end up actually saving money, while most of the rest break even, and the remainder even spend more compared to proprietary software.”

LinuxIT’s Dawes-Huish agrees there are various, often conflicting arguments around total cost of ownership and return on investment for open source software platforms.


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