Is There Value in Open Source?

2004-03-16
Reprinted from The Triangle Technical Journal

You get what you pay for - that statement has been pervasive throughout most of our lives, but is it always true? What about open source software? Not only is it often released for use at virtually no charge, but its source code is also made freely available for modification and customization. The philosophy behind open source is that deep cooperation evolves a software product at a pace that conventional development can't match. But it still begs the question - is there business value in this approach?

The open source software movement began in the US computer science laboratories of Stanford, Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, and MIT in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of developers wanting to collaborate on projects. At the time, the community of programmers was small and close-knit. Code was passed back and forth, and improvements were expected to be submitted back to the community of developers. In fact, to withhold code was considered gauche, the thought being that if you benefited from the work of the community, then you are in a sense obligated to return the favor. Today, this community has not only exploded in size, but is also challenging the traditional views of how innovation should work — becoming an important economic and cultural phenomenon.

So how can releasing source code create value for the customer? Well, consider the following — a customer with access to the source code can:

  • Better protect their software investment in the event that the software vendor goes out of business or discontinues support.

  • Better understand how the software operates in the event of incomplete or confusing documentation by the vendor.

  • Review and correct potential security flaws in the product that might otherwise adversely impact the customer's operations.

  • Perform bug fixes without having to rely on the vendor.

  • Port the software to operating systems and/or hardware platforms not otherwise supported by the vendor.

  • Use the source code to create customized versions of the original software product, extended and improved versions, or whole new applications, without having to “reinvent the wheel."

As you may be starting to see, open source software has much to offer the business world. And the foundation of its business case is high reliability. Because open source software lives in the public view, it is exposed to extreme scrutiny. The fact that it is peer-reviewed makes it more reliable than closed, proprietary software. In fact, mature open source code is as bulletproof as software ever gets.

Still not a believer? What if I told you that the Internet's infrastructure makes the best possible refutation? Well, let's consider the running gears of the Internet — DNS, sendmail, the various open source TCP/IP stacks and utility suites, and the open source scripting languages such as Perl that are behind most “live" content on the Web. Without these open source programs, the Internet would screech to a halt. It is predicted that without them — 1) over half the Web sites on the Internet would disappear; 2) sites still operating would have little or no active content; 3) email would not work; and 4) much commercial software development would stall.

Simply put, open source is good business. Open source software offers a lot of the same features as proprietary software:

  • Commercially available technical support

  • Professional documentation

  • Training classes

  • Managed Release Schedules at reasonable intervals

  • Binary distributions for popular platforms

  • Active User's Groups exchanging experiences

But it goes on to create value for businesses through the following benefits:

 

  • Faster development speed (read as faster time-to-market)

  • Lower development costs

  • Higher quality

  • Avoidance of vendor lock-in

  • Lower overhead

  • Increased customizability

  • Increased security

  • Rapid bug fixes

The corporate world is definitely warming up to open source, and firms are showing increasing interest in using this methodology in both in-house and outsourced development. For example, Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, an investment bank, released the source code of an application it developed to link different types of computer systems, and hired CollabNet to build a developer community around it.

With forty years under its belt, open source is here to stay. Proof — even the US government is considering using it. According to the Office of Management and Budget's Associate Director Mark Forman, the nation's de facto CIO, “There's a lot of intellectual capital coming out of that community, and we've got a lot of government IT folks helping create that intellectual capital." He continued, “They're creating business value.and no doubt we'll take advantage of that. We'll look at the risks and benefits. Clearly, open source will be part of that decision."

Open source software such as the operating system Linux has created much attention as an alternative way to develop and distribute software. Open source is a movement — where communities of highly skilled developers collaborate deeply to create software, often of a quality that outperforms commercial proprietary software. The open source movement has also been said to provide important management lessons regarding the most effective ways to structure and implement innovation. The lessons of open source demonstrate the value of specialization through self-selection and how norms of meritocracy and peer recognition help ensure product quality. Quality, Security, Flexibility, Reliability, Time and Cost Savings - all benefits being generated by open source development that firms will find hard to argue against.