How can open source software for business help your small firm?

Our technical director, Kevin Dontenville, was approached to contribute to an article on open source software for small firms:

Having the right software in place will enable you to run your business efficiently and help you compete in your market. But is it necessary to invest in commercial software or are open source alternatives just as good? Kathryn McCann finds out.

In a 2010 study by Zenoss, respondents cited flexibility and cost savings among the most compelling reasons for using open source software (OSS).

Kevin Dontenville, technical director of OpenSure, says: “The key criteria are to pick software that solves a specific business need and has a wide user base and a good, vibrant community.”

OSS is freely distributed, making the source code available to users who can tailor it to their exact needs or even create and distribute their own versions. However, anyone who uses the code must follow the licence terms and transfer them to anyone to whom they pass the software.

What are the benefits of OSS?

While with commercial software you need to pay for enough licences to cover all the users in your business, with OSS you can add unlimited users without charge. This means you can easily scale up, or scale down without worrying about having wasted money on redundant licences.

Although users are still bound by a licence, open source licences generally protect the rights of the user rather than imposing restrictions.

Users also argue that OSS is more reliable and robust than commercial alternatives. Because other developers can inspect and suggest amends to the code and contribute bug fixes and extensions, OSS gradually evolves to better meet the needs of its users.

What are the cost savings of open source software for businesses?

Ready-to-use versions of many open source packages are available as downloads or cloud-based systems for free. However for complex applications, like CRM packages, you might have to use a third party for implementation support.

To do a realistic cost comparison, consider the total cost of ownership of the software, any agency services and training you might need, as well as temporary loss of productivity while you learn the ropes.

Alan Lord, co-founder of Libertus Solutions, explains: “There is a learning curve for most people when they start using open source versions of well-known commercial software and some training may be needed initially. But for most businesses the benefits far outweigh the downsides of retraining and reskilling.”

What support is available?

The best source of support for OSS packages is user forums. There’s also a growing range of companies that provide paid-for support.

But what if the originator of the code disappears? Dontenville reassures: “Open source software will not vanish because the source code is open for anyone to continue working with and supporting. When proprietary software companies fail, client businesses are genuinely stuck. With open source the risk is mitigated in the user’s favour.”

What’s the best way to select OSS?

Start by visiting a site like Sourceforge to look through the available options and browse the user forums of the OSS packages that look promising.

Make sure there are plenty of recent postings, then try searching for existing answers to your own questions. If the responses look too technical, consider another option or speak to an expert.

Lord concludes: “Investigate the open source alternatives before you buy commercial software. Don’t be scared ― open source software just tends to do what you want it to and there are lots of people available to help.”

Explore open source software for business available on the Sourceforge website

© BHP Information Solutions 2012

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