The Value of Open Source Software

The Value of Open Source Software

By the Apereo Foundation Board

23rd February 2019


Open Source and the Enterprise

Open source software is part of the landscape in tech companies and non-tech companies alike. A recent survey of global fortune 2000 companies found -

  • 93% of companies use open source for non-commercial or internal reasons.
  • 79% use open source for commercial reasons.
  • 69% contribute code upstream.
  • 60% have created their own open source projects.

Why does open source software achieve this degree of market penetration amongst leading companies?

Cost and Deployment

Open source software is free from licensing costs. This doesn't mean that it is free from deployment, training, or maintenance costs, of course, but it does mean that in most markets costs can be significantly lower. It also means that the funding associated with the licensing and other costs (for example multi-user fees, administration fees and upgrade costs) of commercial-proprietary software can be made available for other purposes - such as developing and maintaining in-house capacity and expertise.

Try Before You Buy

Open source software typically costs nothing to try. This allows a potential deployer to thoroughly test applicability and fit for purpose before formal adoption. Many open source projects provide easily downloadable software as well as CDs and USBs for both testing and installation.

Fast deployment and time to market

"Test driving" before procurement in this way can save significant time to deployment. It's often much faster to get a solution based on open source software up and running.


Quality, Stability and Suitability

Proprietary software is often based around the vision and ideas of a particular company. This can be a little "hit or miss". Open source software, fed and driven by community requirements is often closer to the needs of the individuals and entities using it. Users of open source software have the freedom to make modifications to suit their requirements more closely. Contributing these modifications back to the community allows them to be adopted - and maintained - by the community of support, rather than remaining a burden on the developer.

Bug-fixing

When bugs are identified in commercial proprietary software, there's nothing to do but wait for the original developers to fix them. Furthermore, commercial vendors are often driven by sales to prioritize new features rather than fixing existing problems.

Open source software is different. Once a bug is identified, anyone with the expertise and resources can provide a fix.

Reliability and Elegance

Open source software is peer reviewed by merit-based open source communities, leading to greater reliability. Peer review and peer pressure in open source communities often leads to reduction in the complexity of code, making it easier to maintain. Elegance is not as obviously an objective of commercial proprietary code.

Stability

Users of proprietary software often face a tension between the day to day needs of their business, and their vendor's need to develop a regular revenue stream. Often this tension is expressed in the provision of unsought-for upgrades. The tension -termed vendor push - effectively requires the user of proprietary software to fit their IT strategy to the financial needs of their supplier. The history of the software industry shows a tendency to develop near-monopolies which then act to force upgrades onto users - producing high profits but less user satisfaction. A user that resists an upgrade will eventually find they are using unsupported software. Open source communities take a different approach, often offering support for two or more recent versions of software. Such communities proceed at their own pace in a more collaborative manner.


Security, Auditability and Privacy

Security
Anyone can view the source code of open source software, as the name suggests. In addition to the early identification of general defects, this enables the identification and remediation of defects specifically impacting security. Community driven peer review and openness trump "security by obscurity".

Auditability and Privacy
Auditabilty is of growing importance in a world increasingly concerned not only with security, but also the privacy of users data. Open source code allows for external audit of software - ensuring compliance with software standards and legal requirements. Proprietary software essentially asks for a leap of faith.


Customization, Innovation and Reach

Proprietary software can only be adapted or customised within parameters set out by the software vendor. Open source software can be customised by anyone with sufficient resources and skill. This doesn't necessarily imply a "do it yourself" approach - commercially provided enhancements to open source code are common. Open source software can be adapted to meet the specific needs of the user in ways that proprietary software cannot. Open source communities are also highly creative and innovative.

It makes sense to play any adaptations back into the main code release as soon as possible. This effectively shares the cost of maintenance, and acts to reduce the complexity of software upgrades.

Translation

Access to source code enables the translation of open source software into languages proprietary vendors might judge uneconomic. In addition to providing software for communities and cultures proprietary software does not serve, this tends to act to increase the diversity of open source communities and stimulate innovation.


Support and Accountability

Choice
Open source software is not owned by a single company. this means any company can build a service offering around open source software, which encourages the development of choice. Adopters can choose to deploy with community support, or with the support of a commercial services offering, or as a hosted solution, where it is available. Multiple vendors and options provides initial choice, and also reduces the barriers to move between offerings depending on the strategic and tactical options taken by the adopter.

User and Technical Support
Open source software is supported by global communities of adopters and developers, working through mailing lists, blog posts, wikis, videos and other forms of documentation.

Avoiding lock-in
Proprietary software vendors can reduce compatibility with potential rivals, which acts to "lock in" an adopter. Vendors can then increase the price of support with reduced risk of losing a customer.

Mitigation of vendor collapse or product discontinuation
Proprietary software vendors can go out of business, or be acquired by other entities - and do, on a regular basis. Adopters are often left with limited support options, or an urgent need to switch to another product, which may be time consuming and expensive - especially when moving from a "locked in" product.

Legal
Proprietary software licenses are designed to reduce liability for the provider. Many proprietary software vendors employ large legal teams to ensure liability is limited in the extreme. This creates additional overhead - paid for by the adopter of proprietary software. Open source licenses typically disclaim liability also - those who understand software will often accept this risk, and choose the benefits of increased reliability and security over the apparent option to take legal recourse against a negligent vendor.


Being part of a community

Adopters of open source software become part of a community of use  - a constituency with a collective interest in working together to support each other and improve the software they use. Contribution - of code, documentation or other expressions of expertise - is recognised and welcomed. Partnerships created around open source software typically introduce new capabilities and improve existing solutions more rapidly than the internal teams supporting proprietary software.

It’s time for higher education to seriously evaluate the increased use of open source software. In addition to the generic benefits outlined above, there are a range of education specific benefits.

Read more in our ‘Value of Open Source Software for Education’.