Open arms for open source

30 Mar 2005

The open source software movement has been gaining supporters around the globe as a low-cost community-supported effort that provides an alternative to proprietary software. As the name implies open source gives users access to the source code of software programs, something that commercial software companies keep a closely guarded secret, so that users can make improvements or alterations to the software that are then shared with the rest of the community.

The ubiquity of the internet has been a crucial factor in open source becoming popular as software can be downloaded from the internet and free support is available from the numerous online forums devoted to the topic.

All of which sounds highly technical and of limited relevance to businesspeople running a small business. And that certainly was the case in the mid-Nineties, when the poster child of the open source movement, the Linux operating system (OS), first became popular with IT professionals and hobbyist users. But the open source effort is now backed by big names in the IT industry such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Sun Microsystems and Oracle, with inexpensive and free open source alternatives available for every category of software on the market.

Massive improvements have also been made in terms of the ease of use and installation of open source products, which has seen Linux move from being an OS purely for servers to become a competitor to Microsoft Windows on the desktop. Installation and administration is done through wizards and graphical user interfaces similar to Windows, with no need for use of text-based command lines.

“If you could install Windows two or three years ago, you should be able to manage to install Linux now,” says Paul O’Malley, public relations officer of the Irish Linux Users Group. “Even if you can’t, you can find someone who can and you will be able to use it.”

O’Malley likens the switch from Windows to Linux as the same as switching the model of car you drive. “You drive a Volvo and I drive a Renault but if we swapped cars we’d still be able to get into town safely,” he says. “When you are handed a new version of software by your supplier you make the adaptation. It’s the same with the switch to Linux. A modicum of learning could make a huge
difference to your bottom line.”

For those who feel they might be taking a risk with their IT infrastructure and applications by moving to open source, where the only support is a loose online community of developers and enthusiasts, commercial releases of open source products are available.

“Commercial releases are much more stable, because there has been a lot of time spent testing them,” says Kevin Buckley, managing director of Mandrakesoft Ireland, which provides a commercial distribution bundled with thousands of free applications. “You also get user manuals, installation support and wizards for installation.” It has a corporate desktop version that installs the most common business tools as standard including Open Office, Adobe Acrobat, the Firefox web browser and the Evolution mail client.

Open Office is an open source alternative to Microsoft Office with the majority of the code having been contributed by Sun Microsystems that sells its own version of the suite — Star Office, which adds additional non-open source elements such as enhanced spell checking and font technology.

According to Robert O’Dea, director of engineering and software with Sun Microsystems, the majority of users will have a seamless move from Microsoft Office to Star Office unless they have done considerable customisation of macros and other high-end features.

O’Dea believes cost is just one reason why businesses should consider a switch to open source although he does point out that Star Office costs €79 while competing office suites sell for hundreds of euro depending on the flavour of the product you purchase.

“Open source also gives you more flexibility in how your IT architecture evolves,” says O’Dea. “Sun would advocate open standards not just open source that give you even more flexibility — proprietary solutions tend to try to lock you in. There’s been an opportunity created by the licensing model of our competitors, where they are forcing users to upgrade every couple of years and causing them to incur huge change costs. It’s not a risky strategy anymore. People are beginning to realise many open source software solutions are just as reliable and stable as anything on the market.”

By John Collins