Sunday, November 28, 2010

COTS versus OSS: Why

Open Source versus Commercial Software is an important consideration that is often overlooked. This article provides a high level overview of open source considerations.

Open source is being adopted by developed nations and corporations at a greater pace than developing economies. Organizations of all kinds are consciously adopting open source software for critical business needs: Deutsche Börse Group, Deutsche Bank, the Danish government, BlueScope Steel, NASA, the Associated Press, J.P. Morgan Chase and Google.

There have been many government initiatives around open source software, as governments in Brazil, China, India, Korea, Japan, Europe, Australia and the United States, as well as the United Nations, considers open source policy and options. And large information technology vendors such as IBM, Intel, Hewlett- Packard, Oracle, SAP, Sun Microsystems and Dell are supporting open source (Gustafson, Koff n.d.).

What is the catch? Like all software – open source too has its costs. Maintenance and support costs are left to the adopter to absorb. Koch (2003) elaborates, just because you download open-source applications for free doesn't mean you won't have a whole host of associated costs such as maintenance, integration and support. Security concerns have often been raised “because anyone can see the code” is debatable. This notion is easily dismissible.

Licensing can be tricky for smaller companies who are vulnerable to lawsuits through lack of indemnity in open source products. The “as-is” aspect of open source software is risky. There is a possibility that part of open source software “copied code” from some other licensed product. It is very difficult for the companies to identify or compare open source with licensed software products to identify theft. This exposes the company using open source software to lawsuits from companies claiming that the open source software violates their intellectual property rights. New markets and emerging economies should take note of this risk.

Price is another factor: since open source software can be traded in markets just like any other kind of artifact one cannot definitely tag open source software as having zero price, explain Scacchi (2003). Programmers often explain this seemingly incongruity with simple shorthand: when you hear the term “free” software, think “free speech” not “free beer”; or ‘software libre’ not ‘software gratis’. The fact that open source software is free can be confusing to skeptics and adopters. Scacchi (2003) explains the meaning of “free” in open source software. He elucidates that “Proprietary source code is the touchstone of the conventional intellectual property regime for computer software. Proprietary source code is supposed to be the fundamental reason why Microsoft can sell Windows for around $100 or why Oracle can sell its System 8 data management software for many thousands of dollars”. Open source software process “inverts this logic” (Scacchi 2003).It differs from commercial software in one fundamental aspect – source code is distributed with the runtime binaries of open source products. All documentation, source code and the runtime binaries are provided by the development community for free.

Adopters must be able to bare the hidden costs associated with open source software. The success of open source software is surprisingly not attributed to its zero monitory cost of purchase. Schadler (2004) attributes the success of open source to high availability, self-training opportunity, and support. He contrasts this with commercial software and underlines the non-availability of software and self-training.

Although open source is free, it is not free of obligations and lack of guaranteed support. This makes it less attractive for emerging economies and risk averse entities. Just as free speech is not intended primarily for oppressed dictatorships, in the same way open source is not intended for poor or developing nations and economies alone. Not only emerging economies, but all types of economies and corporations should consider a policy of open source software adoption.