The Business Value of Open Source

Looking beyond the 'liberating' philosophy, the principles of open source can create immense business value

One of the common objections that I hear about open source software is along the lines of “Why do I care about access to the source code? The last thing I want is responsibility for more code.”
Catching the word ‘source’, it is quite easy to jump to the conclusion that it is the only benefit of open source and thus its philosophical system – “software freedom”, is the domain of sandaled revolutionaries fixated on programming.
But a focus on software freedom isn’t just for the revolutionaries. All the values that make CIOs pick open source software are derived from software freedom. You can use the presence of software freedom as the ‘genetic marker’ for value to your business. In just the same way as a policy might mandate “continuous improvement” or “scrum programming” as shorthand for a detailed set of practices known to bring value to the enterprise, it is smart to mandatorily require the presence of “software freedom” in software systems and here’s why such a mandate is important:
The free software definition does indeed read like a revolutionary manifesto, partly because that was the intent of its author. The people behind it often eschew the pragmatism of the term ‘open source’ and focus on liberty alone. It’s worth looking behind their philosophy though. I paraphrase the free software definition as guaranteeing the liberty to use, study, modify and distribute software without the need to seek further permission (such as by paying a fee or registering). Those four liberties create value for business
The value of the best-known liberty of open source software is to use it for any purpose, without first having to seek special permission (for example by paying licensing fees)

  • Open source software may be used for any purpose by anyone without the need to accept any form of end-user license. The open source licenses are granted unconditionally
  • Obviously this means there are no payments required just to use the software, assuming you already have the skills to do so. But that’s not the only, or even the main benefit
  • More subtly, it means you do not have to track usage and there is no license compliance requirement of any kind for mere use. An enterprise running only open source software would need no software asset management – a huge saving in both cost and process complexity
  • It also improves procurement processes. It’s OK to prototype rapidly, trying every available component for best-fit with your solution. There’s no need to pick based on supplier promises, nor to restrict solutions to a single supplier portfolio
  • Open source software is thus a flexible choice for enterprises and preferable to proprietary software of roughly the same capability, which is burdened with end-user compliance as well as usage fees and other potential contractual obstacles such as field-of-use restrictions or hardware configurations.

The fact that there are no barriers to studying the source code and experimenting with it drives the availability of skills and suppliers.

  • To innovate with open source software does not require any permission from anyone – it’s all granted unconditionally in any OSI-approved license.
  • The market in open source tools and consultants is getting richer and more vibrant by the day because of this freedom.
  • The market is rich with skilled consultants to architect and build your solution, to provide support and maintenance, and to operate and manage your systems
  • That in turn offers both budget control and flexibility. All of these are costs you can choose according to your own choices and budgets rather than dictated by a supplier.
  • Anyone has the freedom to modify and re-use the source code. This offers the assurance that vendors can’t withhold the software from you when your relationship with them changes. If your budget doesn’t run to their services this year, you still have the software
  • Equally, if a vendor decides to end support for open source software, another company can step in and carry on where they left off.
  • There are some great examples of business continuity delivered by open source when vendor acquisitions have led to attempts to EOL products but a new company has stepped in to continue development.

Finally, the freedom to share the software with anyone you wish delivers great business flexibility. You can even include your own enhancements.

  • Some licenses will need you to take care to comply with their terms if you distribute the software outside your own business. The requirements are typically less onerous than those incorporated in proprietary software (which often won’t allow any form of distribution) but they do need tracking.
  • Unlike proprietary software terms, which vary by package, geography, application and even on a per-customer basis, open source licenses are well understood and thus much simpler to administer
  • Open source software can be used by your staff for personal use as well as at work, greatly simplifying BYOD and flexible working.
  • Software can be distributed to customers and suppliers, permitting easy standardisation of formats and workflows
  • Governments can distribute software to citizens, lowering barriers to citizen engagement and collaboration

When software users are deciding which suppliers to deal with, they need to know whether their software freedoms are being respected and cultivated, not out of a sense of philosophical purity but because their budgets and success depend on it. All the values that differentiate open source for the CIO are the first derivative of freedom. If you had to pay for value, open source would cost far more than proprietary because of these freedoms – a deep irony considering the reverse is true.
Having meaningful markers, governments and larger businesses can use in their procurement to favor open source – the flexible software that lowers costs, avoids lock-in and enables unexpected future uses of data and software
The author is Director, Open Source Practice, Wipro

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