Any company today uses software. This ranges from being a user (word processor, email client, etc), to leveraging software components to build new products and services. Many companies spend significant amounts of money to purchase software licenses from software vendors. When purchasing such “closed-source” (proprietary) software, the customer has no rights to modify or redistribute the software licensed. An alternative software model is known as “open-source”. Open-source software is freely available to download and is developed by a community of programmers. Anyone can modify and adapt the software, and sometimes any changes made and distributed have to be shared back to the community. Many familiar consumer applications, such as Firefox or (most of) the Chrome web browsers, are open-source applications, and the same idea underlies Wikipedia. From a business model perspective, open-source is analogous to an open member cooperative.

Open-source software originates from universities and research labs, where this model is used to share and distribute prototype implementations. However, over time, many large and small companies have found it more efficient to adapt and share back open-source systems, rather than purchase or develop software in-house. The best-known example of a large open-source project is the Linux Operating System (OS), which grew from a one-person hobby project to the most popular OS in the world, powering Google, Amazon data centers, Facebook, most of the Internet, and the majority of smartphones in the world. There are thousands of full-time programmers paid by Google, Intel, IBM, etc working on improving Linux. Why? Because none of these companies sell an operating system yet need one, so it’s in their economic advantage to commoditize the OS and collaborate.

This is great news for any company: there is enterprise-grade software available for free that can be used and modified to fit many needs. In addition, open-source software tends to have more compatibility with other software and therefore does not create a lock-in/dependency to a particular platform or vendor. Moreover, open-source solutions tend to be more secure than proprietary (closed-source) software. This is because there are more programmers looking at the code and fixing bugs since it is open, and the development model inherently focuses on functionality (over marketing). Since many of the biggest tech companies rely on open-source solutions, widely used open-source software tends to be among the highest-performing software in the world. By using open-source software, a non-tech company can leverage the efforts and investments of tech champions for itself. This requires a shift in mindset, from primarily purchasing IT products to purchasing more IT expertise (to put together and tailor the open-source solution).

Not every IT need has a good open-source solution. Generally, open-source works very well for standard IT needs, such as email, groupware, authentication, file sharing, web server, etc. It also works very well if one needs standard components to build a custom technology, such as cryptographic libraries, artificial intelligence (neural networks), networking code, etc. The more specialized and unique an IT/computing need is, the less likely it is that there will be an open-source solution for it, because it will lack a large enough community to share the development burden in a collaborative model.

At BLUSPHINX®, we work with clients to help them leverage the benefits of open-source software and build in-house IT expertise. Transitioning to open-source solutions for specific applications not only saves licensing costs and confers IT independence from vendors, but also provides a powerful bargaining chip in negotiations for other proprietary software contracts.