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Open Source questions answered and myths debunked

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Yossi Hasson, MD of Synaq debunks some fo the more popular Open Source myths and answers frequently asked questions.

Is Open Source effective in the workplace?
Yes, it is effective. The stigma that it's a platform for geeks is undeserved.
SYNAQ is a committed Open Source advocate – we are a 20-person company and we run almost everything on Open Source.  However, we use a proprietary solution for our accounting requirements.
The workplace doesn't have to be an "either/or" environment. There is place for both Open Source and proprietary – it's really about the right tools for the job.
In a simple desktop environment, for example in a call centre in which users just need a simple web interface, basic word processing and a spreadsheet, an Open Source package like Ubuntu running Open Office would be perfect. These users don't need the bells and whistles of a Microsoft Office.
At the other end of the scale, for a SME that is growing and has constantly changing needs – it may need to implement CRM or workflow management and be able to build this up over time or adapt it to enable changes in the business strategy – then Open Source is absolutely the way to go. Open Source allows for rapid change, customisation and greater flexibility.
SYNAQ, however, is the first to acknowledge that Open Source may not be for everyone or for every situation. But it does give users something that they never had before, choice.
 
Why bother with Open Source at all?
For some Open Source proponents, it's a philosophical thing – a belief that software and its code should be free (albeit in a philosophical rather than financial sense) and unencumbered by licensing restrictions.
Probably the most compelling reason to opt for Open Source is its inherent flexibility.
However, if flexibility isn't an issue and if a particular application doesn't add any real extra value – all banks have debit order systems; all businesses have accounting systems – then proprietary software might, or might not, be better.  In these situations, the choice between Open Source and proprietary comes down to issues like features (fit-for-purpose), price and the availability of ongoing support.
Flexibility becomes an issue when an enterprise wants to use IT or a specific application to differentiate itself. An off-the-shelf package might only meet 70 – 80 percent of what is required. The package might have to be customised and that could be expensive, or impossible, regardless of how many skilled resources the organisation has: many large enterprises struggle to adapt to change quickly largely because their legacy proprietary applications don't give them the flexibility they need.  With Open Source, customisation is easier and less expensive as the user has access to the source code.
So if I need to change my business quickly to adapt to developments in the market or to maintain a competitive edge, Open Source is the way to go.
 
Is Open Source really cheaper than proprietary software?
It's unfortunate that Open Source has been positioned as the 'cheaper alternative' purely on the basis that it does not carry the licensing costs associated with proprietary software.
The reality is that the cost of Open Source depends on the context in which it is used. SYNAQ's experience is that the total cost to the enterprise of an Open Source solution and a comparable proprietary solution is probably fairly similar when everything is taken into account. On average Open Source solutions should be cheaper than their proprietary alternatives. However, the main benefit does not come from a cost saving but rather the increased flexibility/ability to adapt and the prevention of user lock-in.
Open Source could undoubtedly be less expensive for SMEs that have in-house Open Source skills with the ability to implement and maintain the Open Source platform and applications itself. This is because there is usually – but not always – no licence fee and the solution could well require less hardware to run effectively. But if the company has to outsource support and development, the costs will probably be similar or possibly slightly less, depending on whether the software comes with a service cost.
 
Is Linux becoming mainstream?
In South Africa, businesses are starting to put Linux on their radar but it is not mainstream yet. Businesses are still hesitant because of the perceived risks associated with open source. These risks have generally been blown out of proportion by proponents of proprietary software through FUD campaigns (fear, uncertainty, despair).
In terms of the growth of the Internet and the Web2.0 community, Linux is not only mainstream, it is close to being the only stream. Even Facebook confirmed that it is preparing to further open its platform so that third-party developers will be able to create applications using its source code that will run on other environments.
Facebook has had to do this because of the speed at which it has to scale and change. As the world becomes increasingly collaborative, so Open Source will increasingly become the platform of choice because of its flexibility and scalability.
 
Popular Open Source Myths
* Only proprietary software is properly tested and supported – Good Open Source projects backed by a proper Open Source community are also fully tested and supported.  The underlying philosophy of Open Source is that it should be open and available to the masses.  As such, it is probably better tested than proprietary software before and after release because the community using it, testing it and enhancing it is so large. Anything missing, any bug, will soon be identified and fixed.
* Open Source solutions are not stable – The best way to address this myth is to point out an Open Source application, Apache, runs about 70% of all Internet servers around the world. Along with products like Squid and Sendmail Open Source virtually runs the Internet. The Internet is amazingly stable. And Google has opted to go the Open Source route for its new Chrome browser.
* The shortage of Open Source skills makes it more expensive – There is a general shortage of IT skills across all platforms – and it's a worldwide phenomenon. In South Africa, because Open Source remains a niche market, skills are not as readily available as for proprietary platforms.  However, while there may be more individuals with MS skills, are they all good skills or are many of them merely average?