Is Open Source That Scary?

A posting on the Inferno Development blog outlines their assumptions about 5 reasons why corporations “fear open source”. It offers some of the usual pablum about how many corporations “don’t get it” or make bad assumptions based on bad data. The authors also seem to assume that these “fears” are somehow unique to open source. The problem is that these 5 points are more about any significant technological change in a corporations infrastructure, and whether that change is from a closed-source product to an open-source product isn’t the issue. The main issue is change itself. The 5 points in the article are:

  1. Fear of rising costs: the assumptions that “corporations” think that going open source will cost more than going some other direction
  2. Fear of time loss: that time will be lost during redevelopment of some systems
  3. Fear of cheap products: that corporations may think that open source is somehow inferior
  4. Fear of technical problems: more specifically, what happens if something breaks
  5. Fear of changing culture: that moving to an open-source product will cause people to leave, or become less productive or not enjoy what they do

These 5 items are not unique to open source. These 5 are real, proven issues when moving from any technology that you already have to something different. Some of the author’s assertions in trying to debunk these fears are actually incorrect, or at least least a little off-target.

Fear of rising costs: no matter what you change a system to, there are costs involved. I don’t care if its moving your graphic artists from Photoshop to GIMP, or moving your group communications from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange. If your end-users are already trained and comfortable using a particular technology or system, you will have to spend time and money to retrain them on the new system you’ve selected. Your internal IT staff will have to spend time and effort learning how to install, configure and run whatever it is you have selected, whether it is open source or not. On top of that, I’m not convinced that using an open source tool has any faster learning curve than a closed source one. Take GIMP vs. Photoshop as an example. While there are some books and training on GIMP, there are many, many more books and training courses available on Photoshop. I am more likely to find someone with Photoshop experience than GIMP experience. That doesn’t mean GIMP is bad, or is “scary”: it means that the available resources and talent pool is smaller for GIMP than it is for Photoshop. I am unlikely to select GIMP, simply because it will be easier to find people who know Photoshop, are comfortable with it, and can be productive right away. On the other hand, if I were to chose server technology, I am just as likely to select Linux as I am Windows, simply because I know that I can find people who are competent with either of them (or in some cases, both of them). There is an enormous amount of documentation available for both, a large body of contractors and consultants and plenty of training available. Going with either represents the same level of risk, from a cost and training point of view.

Fear of time loss: to imply that switching to an open source system requires little or no time and effort is naive. Consider switching databases. Moving from Oracle to DB/2 will take time, training and effort, just as a move from Oracle to MySQL would take. When you are moving from one system to another, you have to take the time to train your IT staff that support it, developers that use it, testers that test on it, etc. It doesn’t matter, and moving to an open source product isn’t somehow magically easier. As the author says “sometimes the open source software has better documentation”. Yes, and sometimes it doesn’t. It isn’t any different with open source than it is with closed source products: some have a wealth of documentation, training and experienced people available. Some don’t. To imply that open source is generally better is at best a guess, and to assume this is universally the case can be risky.

Fear of cheap products: while some corporations still think that ‘expensive means better’, most smart corporations don’t. They take a balanced approach, and select technology based on cost, capabilities of the vendor, and available resources. Personally, if I have to go with a low-risk solution. I would rather spend the money on a product from a vendor that will be around in the next few years, than select an open source solution that has just come out of beta and hasn’t developed much of a following. The risk of cheap, or more correctly shoddy/poor products, is probably about as good with open-source as with closed-source. With closed-source, I can run the risk the vendor is going to go out of business, or change direction and abandon the product. With open-source, it is entirely possible that no meaningful community develops around the system, or that the primary authors decide to abandon it or take it in some odd direction. Sure, I can get the source, but now I have to expend my time and money to have developers maintain the thing? Where’s the real savings in that?

Fear of technical problems: again, this is about risk management, and something being open-source doesn’t automatically make it more stable and less buggy, any easier to diagnose and repair, or any easier to obtain resources to deal with problems. Once again, it comes back to who or what is backing it. For something like Linux, I’m just as  likely to get an answer and a solution to a problem as I am with Windows. Both have large communities of users (and in the case of Windows, Microsoft itself) to back them up, answer questions or potentially have already seen the problem I am having. However, if I pick some obscure open-source accounting system that is only supported by one developer part-time, and with a tiny user community, finding help to problems can be harder. There is one element where open source can generally not keep up: if you have a corporate requirement that a real corporation stand behind a licence and support agreement, then open source systems can be harder to adopt (if they can be used at all). I can’t sue a user community if something goes wrong. I can sue a corporation, and at least try to get compensation for any problems that arise. Not all companies need this (in fact, most don’t), but some do, and this is a very real concern that may have to be considered.

Fear of changing culture: the risk that you will anger your employees by changing systems is very real, no matter what type of system you switch to. If I have a community of users, and we’ve been using Lotus Notes, I run the risk of anger, alienation and frustration whether I move them to Thunderbird coupled with some other backend system, or whether I decide to move to MS Exchange and Outlook. Change is change, and people generally don’t like it.

The last point in the article comes as a side note, and that is one of licence concerns. I have worked with a few lawyers now who are very well versed in the various aspects of different open source licences like GPL, LGPL, etc. They have concerns, some legitimate, about what using open source does to the rest of the business. In some cases, great care must be taken to ensure that using something open source doesn’t put a burden on the rest of the business. As with the 5 “fears”, its about managing risk and knowing that there could be consequences. This isn’t irrational, its business.

The reality is these “fears” exist no matter what type of technology you are talking about. To think otherwise is naive in my mind. Open-source is neither good or bad, it just is, and deserves as much consideration as closed-source solutions. Both must stand on their merits, and meet the risk profile associated with the organization that needs or uses the technologies. Open-source isn’t something to fear, but neither is it some panacea free from risk and problems. Do your research and due diligence, and caveat emptor. Free isn’t always free, but expensive isn’t always better. As with anything, the answer is “it depends” and you go forward from there.