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The Benefits and Challenges of Going Open Source

Open Source Software has woven itself smoothly into the fabric of Information Technology today. Whether we realize it or not, we rely heavily on open-source software today…did you know that open source software powers more than two-thirds of websites across the globe? The Future of Open Source Survey conducted by Black Duck Software and North Bridge revealed that more than 78% of business today use open-source software. 66% of the companies responding to the survey stated that they create software built on open-source for their clients and 64% of the companies participate in open-source projects.

One of the main reasons for businesses favoring open source software over proprietary software is that it is secure and free software and thus reduces the procurement barrier. However, those are not the only driving forces propelling the rise of open software. Since Open Source Software is built for reuse, it permits the code redistribution, modification and even copying without the worry of licensing protocols. This allows collaborative software development and levels the playing field with proprietary software development. Estimates are that open source saves businesses around USD $60 billion annually. In this blog, we take a look at some of the benefits and challenges of working with open-source software.

The Benefits of Open Source Software:

Continuous Evolution = Better Code Quality
Open Source software is open to evolution as the developer community spread across the length and breadth of the globe modify it real-time, thereby improving the technology. This community is focused on identifying bugs and defects and making the necessary adjustments to the code to solve the problem on a proactive basis. The open source community also works proactively on identifying what more the code needs to do in order to better its performance. Strong code review practices also ultimately result in better code quality and stronger product development.

Greater Customization
Unlike proprietary software, open-source software gives organizations the benefit of modifying the code to create solutions that meet their specific demands. They can add or delete functionalities and adapt it to the needs of the users. This gives organizations the capability to make improvements and enhancements. However, it is imperative to note that while making modifications to the source code, it becomes important to ensure that the changes are contributed back upstream. Failure to do so can lead to complexities while upgrading the software.

Avoiding Vendor Lock-in
Undoubtedly, one of the greatest advantages of open source software is that it helps organizations avoid vendor lock-ins. This also makes it highly auditable. With open software, organizations have the advantage of long-term viability. Since the source code is available, a business does not need to pay the vendors for functionalities such as security. Additionally, they gain freedom from charges for product upgrades and support – these charges sometimes can be prohibitively high. Unlike proprietary software that uses closed formats, open-source software uses open formats which delete the need for reverse engineering as well.

Continuous Availability
In the event of a commercial proprietary software vendor closing operations or getting acquired, there is no guarantee that their software products will be available for use, will be updated timely, or even supported. During such an eventuality, switching products are inevitable and yet expensive and hard especially if there was a heavy investment made in the current product. Even during times of good health, proprietary software companies can choose to render older software redundant and not support the format versions. Since the source code is not ‘owned’ by any one person or organization in open source, it becomes much easier to avoid such dangers as the product’s survival is almost guaranteed.

Along with this, there are many other advantages of using open-source software such as greater resource availability, great community support, security, simpler license management, integrated management, easy scalability to name a few.

The Challenges of Open Source Software

Since many people have access to the source code it can make it susceptible to vulnerabilities as not everyone dealing with the code has the best intentions. While most open source contributors use their access to spot defects and fix them, there are those who can exploit this access to create vulnerabilities and introduce bugs to pollute the hardware and sometimes even steal identities. This challenge doesn’t exist with proprietary software as the licensing company has strict quality control processes in place that ensures that security parameters are not violated.

Steep Learning Curve
Open source software may not be very easy and straightforward to use. Operating systems such as Linux are said to have a significantly steeper learning curve and cannot be mastered in a short span of time. Even though Linux is superior technically to other proprietary software’s, many users find it hard to work with. Hiring the right resources to fill the skills gap often becomes a tedious task.

Inadequate Support
Though the open source community is very large, sometimes getting support to fix a problem could take more time. Since open source depends on the community to resolve and fix issues, the issue is addressed when the community has the time to review the problem. Also, in open source software, no one really knows who ideated, designed and created the product. In the case of a non-functioning program, it, therefore, becomes hard to identify who is liable during such events. Additionally, organizations might also incur hidden costs in the form of purchasing external support services.

Just like proprietary software, open source software, too, sometimes holds the risk of abandonment. If the main invested programmers lose interest in the product they can abandon it and move on to the next big thing. Another consideration is that when using open-source software it is also essential to do a compatibility analysis to assess if the hardware platform is compatible with the open source platform.

Despite the challenges, open-source focuses on collaboration, community participation, and volunteering… all these factors aid developing high-quality, highly customized products using the latest technology. A quote from Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media and one person responsible for popularizing the term open-source, sums up the reason behind great open source adoption and success – “Empowerment of individuals is a key part of what makes open source work, since, in the end, innovations tend to come from small groups, not from large, structured efforts.”

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