Open source a mature viability for SMBs

Open source now easier for smaller firms to deploy, providing applications that provide ease-of-use without vendor lock-in. But, there must also be governance.
Written by Sol E. Solomon, Contributor

The low cost of deploying open source software (OSS) and its level of maturity make it a viable option today for small and midsize businesses (SMBs).

Robin Hensley, director of alliance and solutions marketing at Hewlett-Packard, said in today's economic environment, SMBs are increasingly capitalizing on the ease of use and cost savings derived from OSS.

"With the maturity of OSS and increase of open source supporters, the initial apprehension and skepticism have since died down. This has resulted in SMBs being more receptive to OSS adoption," said Hensley in an e-mail interview.

Roman Tuma, Asia South director of software practice, Sun Microsystems, said SMBs are now ready for OSS due to their pressing need to remain agile and financially flexible, and to avoid being tied down to long-term licensing agreements.

Getting started on OSS
1. Evaluate: Do an inventory check of all applications that the business needs to run on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis. Look at current business processes and the technology environment, identify what requires improvement, and work out the deployment plan. Engage industry peers that have tried OSS and learn from their experiences.
2. Partnerships: Choosing the correct implementation partner is of utmost significance. A good partner provides peace of mind and assistance when something goes wrong.
3. Start small: Use OSS in complementary, non-critical applications first to accustom users to it and achieve a comfort level before adopting it for a wider range of applications.
4. Governance: It is critical to have a software governance strategy in place. Also, if an SMB has unlicensed software, replacing these with OSS provides the company with the benefits of running legitimate software that can be shared and copied.
5. Support: Subscribe to service support contracts to mitigate time and effort required to troubleshoot or maintain the software.
Source: HP, Red Hat, Sun Microsystems

In terms of adoption, several OSS distributions are just a download away and ready for deployment "out of the box", Tuma told ZDNet Asia in e-mail. "Installation and configuration are just as smooth and easy as one would expect from any enterprise-level software suite," he added.

OSS has also reached a level of maturity in its offerings, making it easy for SMBs to adopt such applications, Tuma said.

"This was not so a few years ago when it was still perceived as an adventurous undertaking," he noted. "The complexity may be a matter of perception. In fact, many of the top OSS user-friendly interfaces and popular OSS packages are supported by a vibrant developer community."

Harish Pillay, open source evangelist at Red Hat, added that in terms of support for OSS, SMBs are not tied to any one vendor. "Open source gives SMBs the ability to choose who should help them with installation, configuration, long-term support and accountability," he said in an e-mail interview. Pillay added that SMBs should work with a systems integrator or service provider that can deliver the support they need for their business-critical applications.

According to Tuma, maintenance and support for OSS are easily accessible from several sources. "Many OSS come with enterprise-level support subscriptions, at a fraction of the cost of licensing fees required for most proprietary software," he said. "Users who sign up on support contracts can depend on the software provider to troubleshoot and provide maintenance for their software."

He added that users who are technically proficient can also tailor their OSS by editing the source codes, creating highly-customized applications that specifically address their business needs.

According to Hensley, an important part of running a successful open source environment lies in selecting a vendor with significant experience in implementing OSS and providing ongoing support.

Before implementing an open source project, SMBs should have a clear understanding of the rights of usage and whether the technology is appropriate for its business, he said.

"The 'free and easy' world of open source technology presents tangible benefits, but it can present challenges from both technical and legal perspectives," he noted.

The growing use of OSS brings with it ongoing issues regarding acquisition, licensing, code use and reuse, and distribution. The task of managing it is complex and daunting, but avoiding these issues could be detrimental to the business, said Hensley.

"OSS governance should be top of mind for SMBs in order to ensure its long-term viability...throughout the organization."

With an effective open source governance strategy, SMBs can better control the complexities and mitigate the risks with proper processes for managing OSS, he said.

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