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Cost

Open Source software has an obvious initial advantage here. It is entirely free in monetary terms to use and distribute, whereas comparable proprietary software can cost hundreds or even thousands of pounds. Oddly enough, this, perhaps more than any other reason, often makes people wary of OSS; many of us (perhaps particularly us Scots!) hold views such as "you get what you pay for". While this is true in many areas of life, it is simply NOT true of computer software. Some reasons why are listed below. A better proverb is "the proof of the pudding is in the eating"!

How can anyone give good software away for free?
Proprietary software is generally developed by companies which exist to make money by selling the software that they write. While this may initially seem reasonable enough, a little more thought reveals a few problems.

  • To keep selling software, they must keep adding features, whether people need them or not. Extra features lead to extra code, which usually leads to extra opportunities for bugs
  • It is comparatively very expensive to package, distribute and market software and paper manuals
  • Software is not like, say, cars software is easy to duplicate perfectly with no loss of quality. Software houses therefore need some means of preventing customers using more copies than they've paid for
  • Because the code is kept from public scrutiny, standards can be very low indeed.
These reasons, and others, mean that proprietary software is expensive to produce and software companies must vigorously protect their code.

On the other hand, Open Source Software

  • Is often written to do a job within companies whose purpose is not selling software, which means that they benefit greatly from others using, testing and enhancing their software
  • Is often a product of academic research by some of the world's leading universities, who obviously do not exist to sell software, but wish to push the boundaries and capabilities of software
  • Is sometimes written by highly talented young graduate programmers, keen to build up an impressive portfolio to assist in their securing desirable jobs
What about TCO (Total Cost of Ownership?)

Since finally admitting to the threat (to their profits) of OSS, Microsoft in particular have spent much money in funding myriad "independent" "studies" which invariably (surprisingly enough) "prove" that Open Source Software costs more in the long run by being "difficult to use", "requiring more staff training" and so on. These claims simply do not hold water; particularly as they ignore Microsoft's own move to yearly software licenses which require users to in effect re-purchase their software every year for the privilege of continued use - and incidentally force users into upgrading to the latest version of that software whether or not the customer wishes.

The truth of the matter is this: that every case is different. In most cases however, the deployment of Open Source Software saves money, improves reliability of service and gives the user massive flexibility to choose what software to upgrade and when.

Ease of Maintenance

Open Source Software, by its collaborative nature, tends to be very well written; it needs to be, to enable many different developers spread across the globe (who may know very little indeed about each other) to be able to see what's going on. Well-written code is more secure, and very much easier to fix properly and cleanly when bugs are found, and this is a benefit passed on directly to the end-user.

Another maintenance-assisting feature of OSS, and Linux in particular, is that it has been designed with remote management in mind from the beginning. Linux systems are inherently easy to support and maintain remotely; although some remote management features are available as high-cost add-ons for Windows, these are without exception "Kludges" and can never replace built-in good design. This feature enables us, as a company, to maintain and support systems across Scotland, and further afield, at a reasonable cost.

Security

Never has computer security been such big news as today. It frequently reaches prime-time TV news bulletins, as stories of the devastation (lost data, lost time, lost confidentiality) wreaked by latest viruses and Internet worms emerge. Most of this happens because even with this degree of international bad press, Microsoft is in a strong enough position to shrug it off with repeated promises that they will do better. The fact is that:

  • Much of their software is insecure by design (often through features claimed to provide "ease of use")
  • Due to the way they work, their code is often produced by several different groups within the company leading to a less comprehensive knowledge of each other's code and relies on "security" through obscurity
  • Bugs and security flaws reported to Microsoft routinely take months or longer to be fixed
  • The co-founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, is quoted as saying "we don't fix bugs, we add features!" While we hope that he has since been somewhat enlightened, this demonstrates perfectly the complete and cavalier disregard for the needs of it's customers that Microsoft has been famous for for decades
  • Experienced users wait for others to apply the fixes when they do eventually appear because they know that the cure often produces problems of its own
  • Many users simply do not bother applying fixes at all and thereby make the problem mushroom to epidemic proportions
To be fair to Microsoft, and other proprietary software companies, the last item on the list can also be true of those using OSS; however, it is generally the case that those with the initiative to use OSS end up with a more simply managed solution which is very easy to keep up to date with security patches.

However, the fact remains that the Open Source community, whilst by no means immune to mistakes and bugs, has a proven record of very rapid response to security alerts, fixes routinely being distributed mere hours after the initial report. The fact that the code is there for all to see also means that oversights tend to be picked up very quickly because of the number of people looking it over. A further benefit is that problems can usually be reported directly to the original author of the code in question - something that is almost completely unheard of in the proprietary software world.

A final very important fact is this; that Open Source Software tends to produce several excellent alternative programs for any particular task, catering to different personal tastes, and is also generally more configurable. This means that it is impossible for worms and viruses to spread with the same ease as those designed to target the millions of people using, say, Internet Explorer.

Reliability

Open Source software is in general extremely reliable, and this is directly attributable to the way it's developed. All OSS exists because someone, somewhere had a requirement for a piece of software, and wrote a program to do exactly what they needed. By offering it to others as OSS, they themselves benefit from other people using the software in many different situations on massively differing hardware, and supplying bug reports, fixes and new features which they have found necessary. Because the source code is available to all, reliability problems tend to be fixed very quickly indeed - there is nothing hidden from the end user and tracking down faults is completely unhindered.

A further benefit is that the original author will always welcome bug reports and do his utmost to sort the problem; he has no vested interest in denying the fault or not repairing it. It is usually a matter of personal satisfaction for the author to have written a highly reliable piece of software; he has no corporate face to hide behind.

In the very worst (and almost completely unknown) instance where the original author is not interested in fixing bugs, because the software is Open Source, other parties are free to continue to develop the software, so long as they share their improvements with others in the same manner.

Suitability for Purpose

As we have already mentioned, a piece of Open Source Software usually exists purely because someone had a requirement for it. This focus on fitness of purpose is something which is often degraded in the world of proprietary software; the constant pressing need for more sales leads to features being added whether or not people actually want or need them.

Open Source Software tends to concentrate on doing a particular, well-defined job well, and is almost always designed with interoperation in mind. This (plus the supreme flexibility of Linux/Unix) makes it possible to chain together several different pieces of dedicated software to provide exactly the desired outcome. Identifying what software can be of value to your business and integrating it into your business process is the hardest step, but it's one for which we are well qualified to do, and would be delighted to work with you in doing so.

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