May 2001

Over the coming year I will be writing about Open Source software and what it can do for you and your business. No matter what business you are in, you can benefit from Open Source software, and if you are a software vendor or integrator, there are ways to use Open Source software as part of your products, not just in internal operations.

What is Open Source software?

The first thing to do is explain what Open Source means.

Open Source software comes with its source code, so that you or your employees can modify the code to suit the way you work. You can add features, fix problems, or even simplify the program and its interface so that it works just the way you want it to.

You have probably been hearing that that Open Source software is free. Some of it is, and some of will cost you money. Generally speaking, if you want it in a convenient form, packaged on a CD and with a manual, this will cost you money. And it goes without saying that if you want support, you will have to pay for it.

Some of the excitement about Open Source does come from the fact that for the expert programmer, there is much Open Source software that can be downloaded from the Internet for free, and if you don't want to pay for a support contract, you can find discussion groups on the Internet that will give you free help with your problems.

But businesses that have to run dependably on schedule will feel safer if they pay for tested packages of Open Source software and sign support contracts for any software for which they believe they will need outside help.

Are there any special obligations if I use Open Source software?

If your company is simply using Open Source software internally, and not distributing the software, you are free to use it and change it. You can keep your changes and customizations to yourself.

It is possible, of course, that you will want to share the changes you make with the people who wrote the software. You can do this by sending them the source code for the changes. If they like what you've done, your changes will be adopted in future versions and everyone who uses it will benefit.

There is a chance that you will want to distribute some Open Source software to others. You may want to give your customers a software package to interface with your order systems, for instance. If the license for the Open Source software says that you must distribute source code with the software (and many of them do), you will have to follow it. We'll talk about Open Source licenses another time; you probably want to hear about uses for it first.

What kind of software is available in Open Source?

The most famous and most widely-used Open Source software is technical--operating systems and server software--and this is the sort of Open Source software most widely used in businesses.

Everyone thinks of Linux when they hear about Open Source software--it's a clone of the UNIX operating system. Currently it's not so powerful or fully-featured as the expensive UNIX versions, such as Solaris, but it is much cheaper, and once you've bought a copy, you can put it on any number of machines you wish. IBM thinks enough of Linux that it is offering versions of Linux on all its hardware, from mainframes to laptops.

Besides the Linux operating system, there are other UNIX look-alikes that go under the name of BSD, such as FreeBSD, NetBSD, and BSD OS. Any of these Open Source operating systems will turn your hardware (even an Intel 386) into a server or multiple servers and even a workstation. And they are all well-known for their UNIX-like reliability: they can run for months or years before needing a reboot.

Look around your company and you will probably find a number of servers. If you are using Microsoft server software, you will probably find a machine dedicated to each type of function: one for file-and-print server, one for Web server, and another for mail server. And it's possible you will find some Open Source servers as well: over half the Web servers on the Internet are running Apache, and most of these are running on an Open Source operating system.

How would Open Source software improve my situation?

Do you like saving money, having longer uptime, and being able to fix problems as they occur? Here's what Open Source software can do for you:

1) Increase Reliability

If you think about it, saving out-of-pocket money is not the top priority of your present computer system. You are willing to pay what it takes to have a useful, dependable system (of course you don't want to pay any more than you have to).

Ask your staff how long your servers function between failures, and how long it takes to find and fix the problem and to bring the servers up again. How much staff time does a failure cost you, and how much do lost orders and lost production cost?

If you are currently running on a closed-source, non-UNIX system, you can increase reliability by using one of the Open Source operating systems mentioned above.


2) Save Money

Save those machines. If you are thinking of upgrading your current operating system, you will very likely discover that you will have to buy a newer, larger machine to run it. You can switch your current Intel (and some other) hardware to Open Source software using the same machines you are currently runnning. If you are going to add servers, you may not need to add more machines if you switch to Open Source software, and you may be able to use old machines that are currently in the closet.

Save those license fees. The server software we are discussing--Web server, file-and-print-server, and other packages--are usually included free in the box along with Open Source operating systems. There are several vendors who will sell you packaged versions of all this software: SuSE (Germany) and Mandrake (France) are EC vendors, for instance. The operating system and server software can be placed on any machine you own for the cost of a single copy. You don't have to count licenses or buy extras.

Pay for what you need. Your staff can tell you about their current upgrade plans, spare machines they have on hand, and how they plan to use their budget over the next year or so, and if you talk to them about Open Source you can do a comparison of the possible savings.

But the chief costs of running a computer system are not hardware or software; personnel and their time are the biggest expense. It will take competent personnel, either on your staff or outsiders, to install and configure the Open Source software.


3) Add Flexibility

This part is up to you. By rewriting Open Source software to fit your needs, by being able to fix problems as they occur rather than hoping that a distant software company can fix the problem, you will increase the efficiency of your business. If you have a number of different software systems, you can tie them together with an Open Source server. Samba is server software that makes Open Source servers look like Microsoft servers to other Microsoft servers, so that you can tie all of them together into a company-wide system. Samba makes it possible to run a mixed system while you introduce Open Source software at the points where it is most needed.


How do I start with Open Source Software?

Do a survey of your present hardware and software and its uses, and ask your current staff or outside vendor whether they can handle Open Source installations and operations for your intended uses. If they don't have the ability, look for an outside firm that can do so and check with them for pricing. It may be a firm that already handles UNIX, or it may be a new company that has decided to aim the UNIX expertise of its staff at Open Source systems.

For more information:

Business users who want a top-to-bottom look at Open Source and its use in businesses can see Open Source: The Unauthorized White Papers, by Donald K. Rosenberg.

Web-based information on Open Source is abundant.

Copyright © 2001 by Donald K. Rosenberg, Stromian Technologies (


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