Open Source: not 'if', but 'what'

Open source is finding a home in an ever-increasing number of niches within the business

One theme that's becoming increasingly apparent -- and which was reinforced yet again at the LinuxWorld expo in London this week -- is that the open-source model is steadily climbing its way up the software stack.

As far as businesses are concerned, the open-source issue is no longer a question of if, or even when, you will begin considering it: rather, the issue is what you will use it for. And nobody working with technology has an excuse for thinking that open-source equates to free, as in free beer.

You will have to pay somebody -- be it your staff, a consultant, a contractor or a vendor of packaged software. But with open source the cost is transparent, so you can tell whether the markup is worth the value you're getting. It's very hard to justify a 100 percent (or more) markup on software, which is why the proprietary vendors are getting a little worried.

That, together with the fact that any wise investment in open source should also mean guaranteed open standards, is why there was no shortage of corporate IT types at the LinuxWorld Expo. If they were not already using Linux, they were certainly all contemplating it.

Of course there's a time and a place for everything, and open-source software is no exception. You should not, for instance, use it if the technology direction of an open-source project does not meet your company's goals. You should not use it if your employees don't buy into it (as it were) -- unless you want to fire your entire tech team, which is probably not a good idea. You should not use open-source software if you have time-critical projects, open-source software developers typically being poor at hitting (or even committing to) release deadlines; they usually prefer to wait until the software is ready, which although laudable doesn't suit everyone.

But those few exceptions leave many places where open-source is appropriate: where security is paramount, for instance, or where you want to ensure open standards, or avoid vendor lock-in or high licence fees.

Many companies begin with intranet Web servers, move on to infrastructure servers (DNS, DHCP), then to small databases (MySQL and PostgreSQL), departmental servers (with Samba), application servers (JBoss) and from there to technical workstations. Rollouts of open-source software across general-purpose desktops or mission-critical servers is still the preserve of the few (typically with in-house expertise), but it is happening.

And increasingly, it's simply a question of what you want to use it for, not whether you want to use it at all.