Open Source: Godsend Or Highway To Somewhere Else…?

Is Using Open Source Software A Good Thing Or A Bad Thing?
Is Using Open Source Software A Good Thing Or A Bad Thing?

What if software was free? Every CIO has to stop and ask themselves this question every once in awhile. With the cost of ERP and database systems constantly increasing, software costs can quickly become a significant expense for any IT department. The “Open Source” software movement, born in the days when Napster was giving away commercial music for free, is one way the IT departments can get high quality software for free. But should they?

The Many Flavors Of Open Source

There isn’t enough space in this article to list all of the open source projects and applications that are out there. Some of the more famous include the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and Python) . In my business I use WordPress to blog and vTiger for CRM; however, there is also the Movable Type platform and SugarCRM to choose from.

A healthy open source project has lots of programmers contributing changes and new features to it. It needs strong central management in order to do good project management: what goes into the next release, who tests it, and when it’s available for general release.

Why CIOs Should Use Open Source

When a CIO considers using open source applications as a part of a firm’s IT infrastructure, support is the first thought that springs to mind. In the world of Linux this issue has been solved by the arrival of multiple firms that provide professional support for given flavors of Linux distro (Redhat, etc.).

If an open source package is popular, there will be a firm out there that can provide support for it. However, one of the unique aspects of the open source movement is that there is a very large unofficial support group for virtually every application. On countless web sites and support boards, IT staffers who run into a problem with an open source application can post their issues. Eager users and volunteer programmers will more often than not spring into action and provide quick suggestions on how to solve the problem.

One additional benefit of using open source is that it gives a CIO a way to motivate and retain staff. Allowing your staff to work on an open source project and to contribute new features that they develop to the overall project can be a fantastic motivational tool. This allows the IT staff to feel that they are contributing to a worthwhile cause. Happy workers don’t go seeking other jobs.

Why CIOs Should Not Use Open Source

You’d think that the case for using open source was open and shut, right? I mean after all it’s free. However, before you leap you may want to double think taking that plunge.

For one thing, the road to today is littered with open source projects that were born, flourished for awhile, and then died due to lack of interest. It truly does take a village to keep one of these things going and if you’ve based a mission critical process on an open source app that dies, then you may be left high and dry.

Support is another issue. The concept of having “one throat to choke” is one thing that helps CIOs sleep well at night. If you are using open source, then there may be no responsible party for you to reach out to if all of a sudden things stop working.

Your specific IT configuration may no longer be supported at some point in time: if the rest of the world moves on to the next version of an operating system and it’s not yet time for you to do so, your open source apps may stop working.

Finally, the more time that your IT staff spends working on open source apps, the more transferable their job skills may become. They may decide to pick up and move on after they’ve gained the knowledge that you paid them to learn.

What All Of This Means For You

When you become CIO, the world of open source software will be even larger and more established than it is today. You are going to have to make some hard decisions as to just how far into the open source pond you are willing to wade.

Open source often comes with little or no formal support. However, the sheer number of people working on a project can fill in the gaps. Allowing your IT staff to work on open source projects can be a double edged sword: they’ll have more job satisfaction, but they might end up leaving.

The price of open source software really isn’t free – you’ll have to make an investment in it if you want to use it. Pick wisely and you just might become know as the open CIO.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Department Leadership Skills

Question For You: When you become CIO, what pieces of open source software will you start to use first?

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