Open source v. proprietary - the debate is over

Mark Evans, Quru Marketing
October 2012

Executive Summary

For many years the debate has been whether open source is a better choice than proprietary. Today, it is not a question of either/or, but rather which is right for a specific business need. Concerns about security have largely disappeared, see the case study on Department of Homeland Security, US which exemplifies a core benefit of open source - it's all about the power of the community. In this case it's like Neighbourhood Watch, with everyone on the look-out, security goes up. Equally, the development and operational cost savings are proven, see the Bonhams case study below.

In many instances, the greatest barrier is lack of knowledge as to how the open source model works. With increasing awareness, fear is fading and as experience of using open source products from major vendors grows, IT leaders need to look long and hard before deciding open source is not for them. A blended approach that uses proprietary or open source according to which is best for a specific business requirement is fast becoming the only strategy to adopt.

Open source is no longer a mystery

For many people, sharing is difficult. Even worse, the idea of developing code that can be used without being paid for is, quite simply, crazy. However, despite this egalitarian approach open source is now very much part of the IT establishment.

Before we consider what that growth means, let's take a quick look at how and why the open source model works.

It's actually very simple. An individual or group develops some code and makes it available to the open source community. By doing so, they allow anyone else to use that code, add to it and develop their own software with the functionality to meet their specific requirements. As long as they only use it internally within their organisation, they have no obligation to release the entire code back to the community. The game changes however if they decide to productise the software they have developed and exploit it for commercial gain. At this point they are obliged under the terms of the license of the original code they used to make all the code of their product available to the community.

When a product is taken to market, the well-established approach is that the basic package is given away. If you want extensions or support, you have to pay, usually through a subscription model. With Red Hat, for example, you can download Fedora Linux free or buy Red Hat Enterprise Linux. In both cases you get the code, but with RHEL you get the support needed to run it professionally.

Open Source is everywhere

The uptake of open source has grown considerably over the past 10 years to the extent that there are, according to some analysts, more organisations using some form of open source than not. A key driver behind this growth source is credibility from the major vendors involved. IBM and Microsoft, which have built empires based on proprietary software, are two of the biggest contributors in money and development resources to widely used open source projects like the Linux OS.

This is particularly interesting when it comes to innovation. It used to be that proprietary software companies led the way on innovation. This is no longer the case. The open source inventions of today are aimed at solving specific problems businesses are facing, especially those resulting from the web. For example, when Yahoo ran into problems processing ever larger quantities of information, it came up with the Hadoop open source data processing framework.

Growth has also changed the debate. Today's open source vs proprietary software debates are less confrontational and have moved away from advocates insisting one is better than the other. Instead, there is growing recognition that both have their place and often a tailored mix of the two delivers the best resource for an organisation.

At its edge, the discussion focuses on what is or is not open source. Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud and other public cloud services are largely built with open source components like MySQL, JBoss, Tomcat, Xen and Linux. But are they open source? Most people would say they are not. Nevertheless, all of the building blocks are open source. Equally, it used to be pretty clear whether a vendor or product was open source, but as we've seen the largest vendors in the industry – all of them – embrace and integrate with open source software and, as a result, the lines of definition have blended together.

Benefits of Open Source

As with proprietary products, not all open source software is the same – quality, cost and support varies enormously. It is usually assumed that the primary benefit of open source is lower costs. In fact, costs do vary and should never be the single determining factor on purchase.

There are 3 main categories of benefit: cost, optimisation and flexibility.

  • COST
    Open source products can be cheaper, but if you want an industrial strength product then you pay for some or all of the services around it. At the platform level, Linux is Linux and what you pay for is the support service. Red Hat and Novell provide additional software components to make better use of the underlying platform.
    Recent economic conditions have prompted more organisations to seriously consider the use of open source as part of an integrated, blended use of all the available technology.
  • FLEXIBILITY
    Organisations have to be fast and agile and that is where open source is a great enabler through shorter application development times, adopting new trends faster, the ability to customise the code to support specific features or processes and faster procurement. In addition there are fast bug and security fixes because coders combine ideas and rapidly fix problems as they are discovered.
  • OPTIMISATION
    With the growth in the use of open source, IT leaders need to consider optimisation in a new way – looking at the big picture of their overall IT infrastructure and deciding whether a proprietary or open source solution is best for each part of their environment. This is supported by the fact that open source systems are, of course, more open. They are usually designed with integration in mind, whereas proprietary systems lock users into a closed system giving the vendor significant power.
  • Case Study 1 - Department of Homeland Security

    Even if you think your organisation is paranoid about security, that is nothing compared to the Department of Homeland Security, USA.

    Interestingly, the military took a different perspective on security with the view that it's all about the power of the community. Think about Neighbourhood Watch, with everyone on the look-out, and engaged, security goes up. So, having everyone who might be a victim of an online break-in organised, finding bugs, writing and testing fixes, constantly improving security tools, work - security is enhanced.

    The Department of Homeland Security needed its own software. So, it formed the Open Information Security Foundation with a number of major software contractors and has developed its own intrusion system called Suricata – a complete suite that is based on open source. The National Security Agency (NSA) supports other open source projects, one of which is Security Enhanced Linux (SE-Linux) for which it has developed an access control module called Flask, hosted at the University of Utah. So, open source and security do go together.

    Case Study 2 – Bonhams

    Bonhams is a privately owned British auction house and one of the world's oldest and largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. The Bonhams name is recognized worldwide throughout all sectors of the fine art, antiques and collectors' market. The company may be in third place after Sotheby's and Christie's in market share and auction sales, but a series of extremely successful acquisitions saw accelerated growth between 2000 and 2006. Today, revenue has grown from $64M in 2000 to over $180M and its customer base has tripled.

    However, after four acquisitions it was clear that having four different auctions systems and accounting and administration processes was not going to work, as well as being expensive to run and resource hungry. It was also going to lead to poor customer service and higher charges that would undermine Bonhams' market positioning as the auction house that sells items at lower prices than its more exclusive competitors.

    IT was seen as key to making this complex business work. The answer was a homegrown auction management system, which runs on Linux and powers almost every aspect of the Bonhams business, from property management to print production to CRM. In particular it provides accurate sales, stock and customer information and makes the production of catalogues easier.

    In 2002 Roland Whitehead, now MD of Quru, was IT Director at Bonhams and drove the transformation. Experience of the high cost and lack of flexibility of packaged applications such as SAP and Siebel prompted Roland to build a single system using open source products and systems - Progress, Apache, Tomcat, FOP, Red Hat Linux and IBM System X. The new system, called A3, was launched in January 2003. It has been constantly developed and refined since and is at the core of the company's continued success. Significant costs have been cut, senior management has a clear view of the global business and flexibility on auctions and customer service satisfaction has increased.

    A Blended approach

    Open source tools are now being harnessed to support in-house projects around data management and integration, application development and integration, governance and compliance, business process improvement, security, datacentre modernisation and virtualisation - often to augment existing systems rather than replace them.

    So, it's no longer a case of open source or proprietary. The reality is that a combination of both types of software used in one infrastructure with each meeting specific requirements of an organisation is the best way forward.


    About Mark Evans

    Mark Evans, Head of Marketing at Quru, has long been fascinated by the various structures and ways of working that organisations develop and the resulting impact on sales and revenue. After working in a number of number of major advertising agencies, Mark ran his own marketing consultancy focused on building messaging and programmes that integrate with the way a specific target audience works. His focus is on using communication to share knowledge and as a result, build better customer relationships and business.

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