Open source and the bottom line

Question: Would an open source environment be a cheaper option than Windows at my small business? If so, why?

This deceptively simple question has become one of the most common I encounter. Many small businesses are becoming aware that they have a wide range of computing environment options, where previously their access to supply had been tightly monopolized. As any manufacturer knows, having only a single source of supply is not generally a cheap or secure condition under which to operate a business.

Whereas Windows is a specific product, open source is a development methodology used in a wide variety of software projects. It underlies many products, notably Linux, Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird, OpenOffice, the Apache Web server and the GNU tools. Those are the names in the news, but there are hundreds of thousands of others as well. IBM, Sun Microsystems, Apple, Oracle, Novell and most other leaders in the computing industry have been using open source internally for many years, and are now actively incorporating it into their own products. But even a tiny consulting business like mine can run exclusively on open source.

So to return to our topic: of course open source is cheaper than commercial software. It’s based on a more efficient economic principle. Where most kinds of software are concerned, sharing is cheaper than hoarding. The more people are involved, the cheaper it gets, because unlike physical goods, software costs nothing to copy and distribute.

But is open source the best solution for your specific business? I can’t give a simple answer to that question because it depends entirely on the nature of your business, how far along it is in using information technology, how intimately it depends on technology generally, where it is averse to risk, and so on. Unfortunately, there is no simple test to determine, on the basis of a handful of factors, whether a company should go with one computing platform or another. There are too many variables that might be pivotal.

Ideally, your computing environment will be a highly accurate digital representation of your business processes. For many organizations, it’s already an integral component of business continuity as well. In light of both of these factors, an effective computing environment is in fact not something that you can buy off the shelf. A lot of effort is required to design and maintain it properly so that it delivers full value over the life of your business. This will be true whether you choose Linux, MacOS, a commercial Unix environment or Windows.

To make matters worse, the hard issue isn’t which platform to choose. It’s how to make the transition between platforms, given that transitions are inevitable, technically risky, and have much more impact on the value equation than simple issues of software licensing or even technical support. So the real question turns out to be how easily your current platform can be exchanged for others as technology evolves.

Thus when we talk about which solution is cheaper, interoperability emerges as the dominant issue. Progress in security, reliability and performance all critically depend on it. We have to evaluate costs and benefits over the long term, and under conditions of ceaseless technological change.

Windows has always been a world unto itself. Microsoft argues that entering this world makes daily computing tasks simple and technology buying decisions even simpler, but that of course is equally true of other platforms, particularly MacOS.

Microsoft designed the Windows world to be cheap and easy to enter, but difficult and expensive to leave. If you’re sure that you never want to leave this world, then indeed Windows can be as competitive as any other environment, at least in the short term. But, given that technology will change numerous times throughout the life of a business, it seems prudent to invest in an environment with a lower cost of escape.

Every company is different, and you’re not faced with an absolute choice of whether to commit to open source or Windows. You can run many open source applications on Windows and gain some measure of agility. Many sites run open source servers and have Windows desktops. Many run some mixture of commercial Unix and Linux, some run MacOS exclusively and some run pure open source. There are many options and most interoperate very well. Just remember that when looking for the cheapest option, you must think about costs and benefits over the long term.

Dan Razzell is a consultant with Starfish Systems, based in Vancouver.

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