Open Source versus Closed: The differences worth knowing

By Danie Thom

We may not always be aware of it, but open source underpins many of the applications we use today. Big tech companies like Facebook, IBM, Microsoft, and Google are all active users of and contributors to the open-source community, and 95% of IT leaders agree that open source is important to their software strategy. But how can business owners know whether open source or proprietary software is the right fit?

In a digital business environment, speed and agility are critical for releasing software and features that improve product offerings, optimise operations, or meet customer needs. In these conditions, open source software meets agility and innovation requirements by drawing value from thousands of developers through community-based collaboration. When reaching the open versus closed crossroad, here are some points every business should consider.

When it comes down to costs

An MIT programmer, Richard Stallman, started the free software movement in 1983 as a response to the competitive restrictions of proprietary software. It was not only about making software more accessible, but also about fostering collaboration among developers and giving them the freedom to use, modify, and distribute code without licencing restrictions. Open source software was introduced when Netscape Communications Corporation released the source code of their popular Netscape Communicator software in 1998. The price of closed-source software can increase greatly based on complexity, whereas the core functionality of open source is free, and extras such as support, services, and custom functionalities can be paid for only when they’re needed.

Open source software means businesses can experiment with existing community-built tools and functionalities without any capital outlay. If a business wants to start automating some of their processes, for example, they can simply install Ansible for free and start benefitting immediately. Once an open-source venture, like automation, becomes critical to operations, businesses can turn to companies that offer open-source enterprise services for added support and security and ensure that it’s ready to scale for enterprise-wide use.

What about security?

Because proprietary software doesn’t make its source code openly available, there is a common misconception that open source is not as secure. But because of the rigorous peer-review process that exists in open-source communities, the opposite could be true. Open source is developed in public, so everyone can see and inspect it. Thousands of developers test for back doors and vulnerabilities, and because there are so many contributors, threats are identified and patched quickly and thoroughly. Open source software also offers great performance and stability because of this.

With closed source, most of the code is inaccessible to users, and security responsibilities rest on the vendor. This could delay response times when addressing threats, as vendors do not have the same resources to monitor and resolve weaknesses compared to the open source community.

Finding the right support

The complexity of the software component lifecycle means that fixing, maintaining, and building new features requires resources and skilled developers that many companies can’t afford. Even if a business can bear these costs, it may be more efficient to outsource these functions to a company that specialises in development, especially if software is not its core business. With proprietary software, support is usually factored into the cost of the software and caters directly to the paid-for software being used.

Open source has one big advantage when it comes to support: its community.

With more people working on the same code, open-source programmers never troubleshoot alone. Some reputable companies also offer extensive paid-for support services as well as training and certification to help businesses and their developers unlock the full potential of open source’s wide range of applications.

Innovative software requires flexibility

From adopting hybrid cloud infrastructure to providing new products and services to customers, keeping up with the rapid pace of digital innovation requires the flexibility to make continuous improvements to software. Proprietary solutions have the disadvantage of only being as flexible as the creators intended, and customisation can be expensive and slow, and may only extend to superficial front-end changes. Businesses can also find themselves locked in to certain providers if they build their systems with a single vendor, limiting their ability to change or innovate their business processes.

Open source offers more flexibility as developers can modify functions or add enterprise-class community-created features, without restrictions, as soon as they are needed. This allows businesses to start small, be faster-to-market, and have full transparency over their software lifecycle. Open-source software is generally interoperable, which allows more seamless integration between different software systems compared to siloed proprietary solutions. When it comes to innovation and flexibility, open source takes the lead.

The open culture

The free software movement that started in 1983 has become about more than just software. It’s become a      culture of openness and collaboration that aims to make everything from research to creative resources better and more accessible to everyone. With the collaboration and active contribution of thousands of developers and many of the largest companies in the world, no single organisation can compete with the collective power of open source. And as the community continues to grow, so does the range and value of software being created. Everyone builds it, so everyone can benefit from it, for free.

(Danie Thom is a Solutions Sales Professional: Hybrid Cloud Specialist at Red Hat).

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