Open source is becoming a driving force in day-to-day user operations from small businesses to the federal government, but it is far from a new trend. In fact, it was the driving factor in the expansion of the World Wide Web.
Open source allows users to modify and share code legally by opening the design to the public. If you build an application based on open source code, you must allow others to modify and share your creation for free.
Let’s look at some of the benefits of open source software development:
- Typically “free” or very low-cost.
- Bug troubleshooting and fixes are done by the entire user base, because anyone can inspect and tweak the code. (This is the biggest advantage, as end users provide a high level of debugging for free.)
- Open source is robust, powerful and can be used for most solutions.
For many small business owners, open source software represents a free way to meet their needs. Compared to the cost of Windows servers ($7,000 to $10,000, on average), an open source operating system like Linux will cost the price of server parts and setup time, and that’s about it. For a business on a budget, an open source solution seems ideal, but is it really the cheapest and best option?
Open Source Pitfall 1 - Support
Open source’s flexibility is often cited as an advantage, but this can actually lead to major issues. The biggest? Support.
Because open source essentially allows you to do whatever you want, end users are able make extremely
customized systems. Unless your setup is thoroughly documented, it can become a nightmare to fix.
Here is an example of a situation in which a free solution will end up costing you more money than Microsoft Windows.
CEO Sam hires a Linux admin to set up and configure CentOS servers to host her business’s custom application. Sam is on a budget, so she pays the technician to get things set up, and the tech leaves without giving any documentation on the configuration of the servers. A year goes by without a problem and Sam feels great about the money she saved, but then an issue comes up with the server. Sam hires another Linux admin to fix the problem, and without any documentation for guidance, it takes days for the tech to figure out what is going on before he can even start troubleshooting the issue. This whole process, along with the creation of corresponding documentation, will cost Sam thousands of dollars.
They key takeaway? Linux is free, but support is not. If not managed correctly, your Linux server could cost you thousands when something goes wrong. Linux experts are not cheap, and building your business on open source requires you to have someone who knows the system.
Open Source Pitfall 2 - Security
If configured correctly, Linux is one of the more secure operating systems out there, but maintaining that security can be a hassle. Because many open source applications are developed by end users, security can be glossed over or even completely ignored. Also, because open source code can be viewed by anyone, hackers may use the source code against you. In order for your business to attain PCI or HIPAA compliance, you must conduct robust tests to check your servers for vulnerabilities – you cannot just install software and be considered compliant. Red Hat, the world’s leading provider of open source solutions, develops secure code for the OS and then supports it by making sure it is hardened and reliable (and trust me, Red Hat is not cheap!).
Open Source Pitfall 3 - Longevity
The last and arguably most important question to ask yourself is “How long will that open source vendor last?”
Let’s say there is a problem with the code that an entire global community is working to solve. An open source development company like Red Hat could spend thousands on developing a solution only to end up implementing someone else’s fix. Once the global community adopts something, it is pointless to pursue your own custom solution, so if 70% of the open source community decides that the software you just spent thousands on is useless, then guess what? It’s irrelevant.
Open source development companies often fail because their software is replaced by something better, and when they do, your support and updates go out the window.
While open source may be a great solution for your company, it’s important to realize that it is not free, no matter what anyone tells you. And while open source solutions are powerful and robust, they also require experts to set up and maintain them, have security vulnerabilities and can change frequently. No matter which route you choose for your company, make sure you thoroughly research options to make a well-informed decision.
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