Open Source for Business: Pros and Cons

Posted October 3, 2016 By  Cynthia Harvey
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    Open Source for Business: Pros and Cons
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    Open Source for Business: Pros and Cons

    Open source software offers benefits like high quality and faster application development, but some businesses have concerns about support and security.
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    Pro: High-Quality Software
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    Pro: High-Quality Software

    In the Black Duck survey, organizations said that the number one reason why they use open source software is because of the quality of the solutions. And the number two reason was closely related: open source software offers competitive features and technical capabilities that may not be available in proprietary solutions.

    In many of the hottest areas of technology, such as cloud computing, big data analytics and containerization, open source has become ubiquitous. For these types of use cases, enterprises can easily find tested, production-ready open source solutions that have the unique features and quality they need.

    Image Source: Black Duck Software Future of Open Source Survey

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    Pro: Faster Application Development
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    Pro: Faster Application Development

    Organizations aren't just running existing open source applications—they're also incorporating open source code into their custom development projects. In fact, 65 percent of the businesses surveyed by Black Duck said that they are leveraging open source software in order to speed up their internal application development. This approach makes a lot of sense because it allows developers to build on work that has already been done rather than reinventing the wheel every time they start a new project.

    Image Source: Black Duck Software Future of Open Source Survey

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    Pro: Customization Capabilities
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    Pro: Customization Capabilities

    Another features that attracts businesses to open source software is the ability to customize the software as they see fit. With proprietary solutions, organizations generally either have to use the software as-is or pay high customization fees to the company that created it. But with open source software, any company can modify the code so that it meets their unique needs.

    However, before modifying an open source project, businesses need to make sure that they understand the particular licensing requirements of the software they want to customize.

    Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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    Pro: Lower Costs
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    Pro: Lower Costs

    The lost cost of open source software isn't the primary reason why some businesses choose to use it, but it's definitely a factor. All open source software is available without licensing fees. In some cases, the project owners charge a fee for support and/or services, and in many cases, the owners offer optional paid support. Even when companies choose to pay for support, they often find that their total cost of ownership is lower with open source because of the free licensing. Interestingly, in the Zenoss survey, 56 percent of respondents said that they had upgraded to a paid version of an open source solution.

    Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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    Pro: No Vendor Lock-In
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    Pro: No Vendor Lock-In

    Many organizations have found that once they have deployed a particular vendor's software, it is tremendously difficult—and expensive—to switch to a competing product. This phenomenon, known as "vendor lock-in," has been particularly troublesome when it comes to server operating system software and databases. Because these types of software form the backbone for a lot of other applications and infrastructure, switching to a new product requires a lot of time and energy and possibly even re-writing some code. In addition, some vendors lock in uses by enticing them into long-term support contracts. Open source software, by contrast, is generally based on open standards, which helps eliminate many of the problems of vendor lock-in.

    Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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    Pro: Greater Interoperability
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    Pro: Greater Interoperability

    Using software based on open source standards not only helps companies avoid long-term commitments to a particular vendor, it also gives them more options when it comes to the other applications that they use. Open source solutions tend to offer greater interoperability with other tools and applications than proprietary solutions do, and that gives businesses greater flexibility and agility.

    Image Source: National Park Service

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    Con: Tracking Difficulties
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    Con: Tracking Difficulties

    One of the biggest downsides to open source software is the difficulty that organizations face in tracking their use of open source code. When developers leverage open source code for internal applications, the individual developers involved are often the only individuals who know where the code originated. And when those individuals leave the company, no one knows. If a security vulnerability in the open source project comes to light in the future, the company may not even realize that they have a problem hiding in their code.

    Image Source: Black Duck Software Future of Open Source Survey

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    Con: Security
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    Con: Security

    Security is both a pro and a con when it comes to open source. On the one hand, anyone can look at the source code for open source software, making it much more likely that someone will spot a problem.

    On the other hand, as already mentioned, the difficulty in tracking open source software makes it hard for companies to know when they have a vulnerability. And as open source becomes more popular, hackers are increasingly targeting widely used open source code. In addition, sometimes the open source developers behind a particular project stop maintaining the software. In these cases, vulnerabilities may never be patched.

    Any businesses using open source software needs to make sure that they have a strategy in place for dealing with these unique concerns.

    Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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    Con: Licensing Restrictions
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    Con: Licensing Restrictions

    Some open source licenses include restrictions that some businesses find difficult to accept. For example, the GNU General Public License (GPL), which is one of the most popular open source licenses, includes "copyleft" terms. Copyleft means that any derivative work must be distributed under the same license. In other words, if a business modifies a GPL-licensed solution and then distributes it, the modified solution must also be distributed under the GPL license.

    There are numerous open source licenses and variations of the licenses available (even the GPL license comes in three different forms). It's up the businesses that use the software to make sure that they are tracking those licenses and complying with the relevant terms or they could face legal trouble in the future.

    Image source: Free Software Foundation

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    Con: Lack of Support
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    Con: Lack of Support

    In the Zenoss survey, the number one reason that companies cited for not using open source software was the lack of service and support. While many open source projects offer the option to purchase paid support, many do not. For businesses, this can be a key concern because time spent troubleshooting any problems with the software can quickly eat into the TCO savings they hoped to gain by choosing an open source solution. Fortunately, the number of open source projects with paid support available appears to be growing.

    Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

For many businesses, open source software has become an integral part of doing business. In fact, according to the Zenoss 2016 State of Open Source Software report, 91 percent of companies of all sizes use open source software. Similarly, the Black Duck 2016 Future of Open Source Survey revealed that 67 percent of organizations actively encourage their developers to contribute to open source projects, and 65 percent of organizations increased their use of open source in 2016.

Clearly, many businesses believe that there are good reasons to use open source software and to participate in open source projects.

However, experts caution that open source may not be a good fit for every situation. That's probably why the Zenoss report found that only 11 percent of organizations use open source for nearly every purpose, while 79 percent said that they use open source for specific use cases.

In addition, experts say if organizations want to use open source software securely and effectively, they need to take some steps to manage some of its downsides.

In this slideshow, we'll examine some of the pros and cons of using open source software for business. These are ten issues that companies should consider when examining the tradeoffs that come with open source.

Image source: Open Source Initiative

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.



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