Is Open Source Software Right for You?

Open source software is a growing trend, and with news that open-source project JBoss received $10 million in venture capital funding, how can you not notice? Corporations such as IBM, RedHat, Sun, and HP are all investing in open-source. The volume and breadth of projects is sometimes overwhelming; there are currently over 90,000 projects on, with more being added every day.What exactly does “open source” mean? It means the user has the right to run, copy, modify, and distribute the software for “free”. “`Free’ as in `free speech,’ not as in ‘free beer’ ”, to quote the Free Software Foundation. “`Free software’ is a matter of liberty, not price.” See also, the Open Source Initiative and the Free Software site.

Proponents of open source claim its benefits include the contribution of a large base of developers; more developers (“eyes”) equates to less bugs, increased stability, and increased reliability; improvements get rolled back in; you are not tied to one vendor; and you have the ability to debug and make modifications if needed.

Opponents to open source claim that the open source model is a “bunch of hackers” just playing in their spare time. By purchasing a proprietary product, you are purchasing the expertise of their staff, are therefore getting a better product, and will also (potentially) receive support.

So, how do you decide what’s right for you? In answering this, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What type of software are you evaluating? Is it geared toward a horizontal or vertical market? Software geared toward a horizontal market, and therefore applicable in many areas, is a better fit with open source. This type of software has a broader user base, and widespread use increases value; examples are network and communication software. Software geared toward a vertical market tends to lean toward the proprietary side. This software may require more specialist skills; examples are device drivers and financial software.
  2. Does the project have “many eyes”? Look for information such as how widely-used the software is and how active the project is. Look for statistics like use and download stats, number of developers on the project, date of the last release, activity of user/developer newsgroups, and the project’s version number (a 0.5 release may not be “ready for primetime”).
  3. Do you want the ability to debug the code, or would you rather rely on the vendor for updates? When incorporating third party software into your product, do you sometimes wish you could “get inside there” and see what’s going on? Be able to debug inside their code? If so, open source may be the answer – or, if the proprietary vendor allows it, you could pay that extra money to get the source code. Do you want the ability to fix any issues you may find, or would you rather leave that up to the vendor?
  4. What level of support would you like? Do you want the ability to call someone on the phone for help? There are a number of open source tools for which support is provided, usually for a fee – for example, RedHat provides support for its distribution of Linux. However, many open source projects do not provide that type of support; they do provide user newsgroups where you can search for questions and answers and submit new questions. With proprietary software, support is usually provided for a certain period of time, with additional support for a fee.
  5. Does development of a new tool align with your business focus? If the alternative to incorporating open source software is in-house development, ask yourself if it aligns with your company’s business focus. If the tool does video compression and your company sells video processing software, then go ahead – you know what you’re doing here and can hopefully improve it to help differentiate your product. However, if at the same company, you’re looking at a tool to handle network transfer of videos – that’s a different story. Why re-invent the wheel? If you develop it in-house, but your competitor releases their product in half the time, how do you explain that?
  6. And, of course, how much do you want to pay? We can’t forget that one!

The decision to use open source software in your business is up to you. At Llamawerx, we believe the open source model is a good one and rely heavily on open source software. Other companies are doing the same; Linux is now the preferred operating system for most servers. According the, the Weather Channel, which can serve up to 50 million pages/day, just switched from proprietary to open source software cutting its costs by 1/3 and increasing its web-processing capacity by 30%. For information on open source projects, visit and

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