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Going With Open Source Software

The open source movement is attracting an increasing amount attention - but is open source a practical solution for your organisation? This article in collaboration with TechSoup, takes a look at what open source software is and the risks and benefits of using it.

What is Open Source Software?

Much of the interest in open source software has focussed on the Linux operating system (an operating system is the software that manages all the computer's processes and runs applications). So much so, that many people believe Linux is all there is to open source software. However, open source isn't limited to the Linux operating system. It is a method of software development and licensing. Generally speaking, open source software requires the distribution of the code, in a readable form, with the application.

Access to the code allows people to make changes to the software, add features, or build other applications that will work with it. They can distribute these changes as long as the source code stays open. Open source software is usually developed by a community of people who are associated, not by company or geography, but by interest in the project. Often, changes, upgrades, and even the main application itself, are made by people who are volunteering their time. They are often working for the result - the ability to use a tool that does what they need it to do - rather than for financial gain.

Potential benefits of open source software

Theory of open source aside, the real question is: how useful is open source software to voluntary sector organisations?

There are a number of potential benefits to using open source software:

  • It is often low cost or even free
  • Because of the dispersed nature of open source development, web pages often evolve to track the project and related resources. These pages can provide a tremendous amount of information for an organisation wishing to implement an open source solution, whether it's a web server (software installed on computers used for hosting web sites), an operating system or word processor.
  • Often, open source software is more robust than its closed source counterparts. (Linux, for example, will reliably run on older computers).
  • Open source products often offer flexible combinations of features. Typically, so many people are working on their own version of the application, it is completely possible to find a version that meets your needs. For example, there are many different versions of Linux, each with it's own feature set.
  • Open source software can frequently be customised. If you are unable to find a version that meets your needs, you can build it yourself or find someone else who can do it for you it. If you participate in the user groups and make a suggestion for a feature or change, it is entirely possible that your suggestion can become a part of the final product. As a user, you have the potential to directly affect the software you use. And, if you are interested enough, you can even learn the programming language and make the changes yourself.
  • Open source development can offer you speedy and enthusiastic support. Because the users and developers participate based on their interest in and need for the application in question, they are frequently willing to go the extra mile to offer others support. Additionally, the developers and main programmers are often only an email away. This can be tremendously helpful when trying to get a system to work.

Potential drawbacks of open source software

There are some potential problems that you should be aware of when evaluating the feasibility of using open source software in your organisation:

  • The first problem is compatibility. It's not always easy to get open source software to work with other applications. More and more funders are requiring organisations to use databases to track information, and those databases must operate with the standard set by the funder. Often, that standard is the office suite most often used, Microsoft Office, which isn't compatible with most open source programs. Additionally, if your organisation already has existing computers and a network, it might be better to have all your applications compatible than to use some open source products in isolation.
  • Enthusiastic and varied support was previously listed as one of the benefits of open source software. However, it should be added that the support can sometimes be difficult to understand because it is frequently aimed at developers and not end users. On many open source projects, end user documentation is aimed at a very tech savvy audience.
  • Open source is not plug and play. Though many open source projects are more and more concerned with making their software easy to use, the fact is loading and installing the software can be a major hurdle for many users. Not all device drivers are supported in all installations. A device driver is a piece of software that controls a particular type of device that is attached to your computer (e.g. a printer or monitor).

    Often, the installation process leads the user through a series of questions that many would prefer not to think about at all. For example how to partition your hard drive (i.e. divide your hard drive into two or more "virtual" drives, usually so you can run more than one operating system on the same hard drive).

The bottom line

So, it would seem that open source software for voluntary organisations is a good idea that doesn't quite work. That may be true. It depends on the specific needs of your organisation. When you are considering a solution for any aspect of your technology structure, it's a good idea to make a list of the requirements that solution has to meet. If you find an open source solution that meets your requirements, spend some time on the project's Web site.

Remember that comprehensible support and product development should be one of your main requirements, and make sure you can get the necessary support from the site or associated mailing lists.

More Information

For more information on open source software see the software section of the lasa Knowledgebase and the following sites:

 

For more information on issues around using open source software in non profit organisations see the following resources:

Comment

Max from UK-based organisation Seeds for Change, which has successfully made the tranistion to Open Source makes the following comment on this article:

"Independent (as opposed to Microsoft funded) studies are showing Linux (KDE and Gnome [graphical interfaces for Linux] ) to be as usable as Windows XP.

"Just as an example, all office workers in our organisation have been using Linux desktops for over 2 years (none are techie - all describe themselves as users).

"The potential problems feared in this article (re: compatibility of free software office suites with Microsoft Office) is not a problem we've had. We've been happily opening, saving and using Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents, and never had any real problems. (In contrast to before we migrated to Linux, when we constantly had problems opening MS Word docs with other versions of Microsoft Word…)

"Support and installation should be thought about, … groups should definitely check that technical help is available before migrating. However I find the complaint that Linux is difficult to install unjustified: How often do users actually install Windows? It is done by people confident with this task. The same standards should be applied to installing any other OS (operating system) - those who are confident or willing to learn are doing the work so it is their standards of "easy" or "difficult" that installation and setup should be judged on. Comparing the installation and setup of GNU/Linux distributions such as Mandrake, SuSE or RedHat with Microsoft Windows (any version) leads me to the following statement: 'installing Linux distributions such as Mandrake or Red Hat has never caused me as much frustration or work as installing any Windows version (right back to Win3.0)."

SOURCE : LASA.org