Why Consider Free Open Source Software?
Many FOSS evangelists will tell you that using open source software is about freedom: Freedom from proprietary technologies, draconian licensing schemes, arbitrary costs and freedom to truly own your data and infrastructure. For most IT professionals, that is not enough. Reliability, security and support are paramount.
Reduced Up-Front Costs
Imagine not having to deal with CALs, Enterprise Agreements, seat quotas or commercial license costs. If you base your project on FOSS, you are free from many of the usual cost-limitations when scaling-out your architecture.
Of course, "reduced" does not mean "free". While you may occasionally have to pay for subscription-based access or software support, you will be free to use the software, for no additional cost, forever.
Your infrastructure will no longer be tied to a continous cost cycle of software upgrades, license renewals or mandatory support agreements. With a properly trained staff, you can redirect corporate expenses as an investment in your personnel. This creates a feedback-loop where, as your employee-base becomes more capable and self-sufficient, you can realized further cost savings as you pursue further development and maintenance of internally-supported systems.
Permanent Data Ownership
We could easily get into an argument of local vs cloud infrastructure, but that's not the point here. Freedom from proprietary, closed-source software means that you own your infrastructure, forever. No longer will you be dependent on third-parties for continuous access to your own data.
Mitigating The Risks of Free Open Source Software
Here we discuss the double-edged sword of FOSS implementation and maintenance.
If a community-supported platform falls out of favor and development dries up, you run the risk of hosting software for which security updates & patches are no longer made. So how do you protect your company?
While this question could very likely warrant a whole series of articles, the following steps should be taken at a minimum.
1. Research technology trends
Browse major tech publications and blogs to gauge the relative popularity of the software you are vettting. Research potential software vendors and ask the following questions:
a. Is the software written in a popular and well-supported programming language?
b. Has a major version (general release not beta) of this software been in use for at least one year?
c. Can you name at least three Fortune 500 companies that publicly support it's use?
d. Do you have and / or do you plan to staff employees who can support the code-base and platform on which this software will run?
2. Choose a commercial vendor of FOSS software
It may seem antithetical to choose a commercial vendor for FOSS, but there are many commercial projects out there based on Open Source software. The value is not in that first download, but in continous software support.
3. Monitor your software and infrastructure
Also, the sky is blue and what goes up must come down... You cannot let your guard down, even when a large network of developers or a commercial vendor are continuously security-testing your chosen software.
Notice somethig familiar? The 3 steps above apply to both FOSS and commercial / closed-source software. The benefit choosing the open-source route is that you gain code transparency and broad platform oversight.
You may be saying:
Question: "Why should I have to keep paying for continuous support of free software? I already bought it!"
Answer: The Internet
The price we pay for being constantly connected to the world we live in is always having to look over our shoulders. We have to assume that our corporate networks and all the infrastructure hosted within is exposed to every lone-wolf and government-sponsored hacker around the world. Software can no longer be static, having to evolve to accommodate continuously changing risks, therefore it makes sense for vendors to transition to a support-based business model.
Increased Up-Front Costs?
How can one both save money and spend more money when choosing theoretically free software? The answer comes down to support.
Long-term support, reliability and security are usually fairly easy to qualify. They are necessary adjuncts of any successful IT software deployment. Budgets will expand to accommodate these needs, especially when the propriety, commercial software exists to satisfy them. Open Source deployments invariably will require full-time, trained, on-site personnel to develop and maintain. This fact alone will scare most IT shops away, especially since, in most cases, Microsoft and compatible software dominates the ecosystem.
At first, costs may be artificially inflated by initial investment in skilled personnel. Whether you hire new employees or pay for additional training, there is a learning curve to be scaled. Your employees will become more valuable (may dictate higher salaries) as the requirements for an internal knowledge base grow.
It will take time, maybe a year or more, but with every FOSS implementation your company's operations teams will become more technologically capable and self-sufficient. You will be able to pursue more ambitious projects, with fewer budget constraints and increased peace of mind knowing that your company's most critical resources are free from the whims of proprietary, closed-source vendors.
Reliability and Support
This cannot be reduced to a single line-item. It works because you invest in your employees and commit to total ownership of your open-source software ecosystem. All the risk mitigation discussed so far is what makes effective support and long-term reliability possible.
For many companies, though, FOSS may not be an option. The value of fast start-up and the straightforward nature of commercial software and paid licensing & support can outweigh long-term savings. The question you need to ask yourself is:
"How much responsibility am I willing to take on in the name of cost savings and software freedom?"
You won't know until you at least start to examine the pros & cons mentioned here. Although this is only the tip of the iceberg (having so far avoided the existential comparison and contrast of open vs close-source software) you are now equipped with solid talking-points for your next round-table.