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What is open source software?

Colleagues working on open source software

Many IT experts recommend small and medium sized businesses use open source software as a key part of their IT strategy. So, what is open source software and what  are the pros and cons of using it in your business? Is it really the best way to build out the technology needs?

This article explains what open source software is, how it differs from “free software” and outlines the main advantages and disadvantages of using open source software to meet business IT needs.

What is open source software

Open source software (OSS) refers to computer software which is released and distributed with its source code open for modification by other users. The source code is released under a license where the copyright holder has granted the rights to use, study, change or distribute the software for any purpose.

Often developed in a collaborative, public manner, many developers are able to add, change and manipulate the source code to suit their needs.

Software licensed as open source allows commercial companies to run, modify and share the underlying software code. Open source licenses are legal contracts between the creator and user.

Although often available to access free of charge, open source licenses sometimes have restrictions applied. Restrictions may mean a user must preserve the name of the original author within the code, or there may be limitations on the way they are allowed to redistribute the software.

As Anthony Kesteron, Principal Solution Architect at Red Hat explains – Open source allows you to see how software works, enables the reuse of the code, design and the architecture for your own software if required. It also means you are not reliant on a single supplier as anyone has the ability to modify, build and deploy open source software.

The pool of open source technology available to use is huge. It’s highly likely that your business will be using platforms built on open source software without necessarily realising it is, in fact, open source. WordPress, for example, is open source, as is WooCommerce, an eCommerce platform built on WordPress.

Open source should be a key part of the IT strategy of any small and medium-sized enterprise (SME). The open source community gives organisations unfettered access to the latest software innovations at an attractive purchase price.

What makes free software different?

Free software has nothing to do with price, rather it is about freedom of use. Free software respects the freedom and community of users, giving the right to run, copy, distribute, change or improve the software. Campaigners for software freedom,, use the analogy of “free” as in “free speech”, not as in “free beer”.

Free software allows users to control the program and what it can do for them. If users don’t have control of a program, this is referred to as ?nonfree or ?proprietary?.

To classify as free software, users must have the following four essential freedoms:

  1. Freedom to run the program for any purpose, as they wish
  2. Freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to their own computing wishes, which requires access to the source code as a fundamental precondition
  3. Freedom to redistribute copies to help others
  4. Freedom to distribute copies of modified versions to others and, in doing so, give the whole community the opportunity to benefit from their changes

Of course, there is also the other kind of free software. The software which you don’t pay for with cash but, instead, is paid for through use. A prime example of this is Google Chrome. Google’s browser is free for anyone to use but the in-built tracking, which watches your every move, makes you a prime target for Google Ads.

In this case, the saying, “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” is very much true.

Advantages of open source software for UK SMEs

There are several advantages for businesses looking to benefit from using open source software in their organisations, the main ones being:

  • Lower licensing costs, which helps lower operational costs
  • No lock-in to one supplier, once decided on a preferred supplier you may have the choice to move to more conventionally packaged products, or stay with the open source project
  • Freedom to use the software as you need
  • Open standards which support collaborative development
  • Ease and freedom to upgrade software as and when it suits your business
  • Additional outside help for programming projects
  • Can help attract and retain smart technical talent

Advertising the fact you are using open source software in the organisation attracts talent. Giving your developers and users the chance to contribute back to an open source community is even more attractive for people and could differentiate your SME from other organisations.

Disadvantages of open source software for UK SMEs

One of the harder things for SMEs when it comes to open source software is the proliferation of choice. Establishing the best route forward for a project can be a time-consuming exercise.

Along with the potentially overwhelming abundance of choice, other disadvantages of using open source software in your business may include:

  • Difficult to use: some open source software may be more complicated to set up and start using. A lack of user-friendly interfaces or features may make them difficult for your staff to use efficiently, which could have a direct negative impact on productivity
  • Lack of liabilities and warranties: open source software usually contains limited warranty and no liability or infringement indemnity protection
  • Difficult to get high-end commercial support in a timely manner, you may find yourself stuck and have to rely on the open source community to find a solution to a problem, which could cost you time
  • Formats may be less acceptable: proprietary formats, such as Microsoft Word’s “.docx” format, are so common other formats may be less acceptable for regular business use
  • Compatibility with a particular proprietary format may be limited to core features, rather than being 100% compatible which may lead to compromises you aren’t willing to make
  • Hidden costs: the software may be free to set up but could cost money to run later, especially as you become more reliant on the software and your business needs expand

While open source software may not have a cost associated with purchasing a license, you should still look at the cost of deployment and ongoing ownership and not just the initial costs.

When it comes to reaching a final decision on the software to power your business, keep in mind the culture and philosophy of your company, as well as the monetary aspect of your decision.


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