Tech companies use OSS for a variety of reasons: the free availability of the source code allows them the flexibility to modify and improve and adapt it in any way they prefer. It removes their dependence on vendors of proprietary software, who may, for example, at any time decide to discontinue development or support for a particular software product.
But how may non-tech companies benefit from OSS and why should they consider it a viable option?
According to a Gartner survey of Global 2000 enterprise companies conducted in 2011, the majority of mission critical software will contain open-source software (OSS) by 2016.
Non-tech companies are therefore also benefitting from many of the advantages of OSS, notably the considerable cost savings associated with its use, both directly and indirectly. Direct costs are avoided by not having to purchase the software in the first instance and subsequently, by not having to pay for upgrades and support. Indirect savings occur by way of a greater flexibility in the form of greater interoperability (e.g. it is easier to use applications from different vendors together). In fact, in their survey, Gartner found that over the past few years, the perceived value derived from cost savings has gradually been replaced by the benefits associated with flexibility. Flexibility offers the ability to respond more quickly to external demands and also to the availability of new technology, thereby enabling companies to be more innovative.
Innovation leads to competitive advantage. Larger companies with more assets no longer necessarily lead the way, instead it is those companies capable of mobilizing their knowledge and skills by using (technologically) innovative methods who have been found to have a distinct competitive advantage.
The BBC’s use of MySQL to power their news web site is an example. Although their decision was also based on cost savings, the main reason for turning to OSS was performance. MySQL enables them to receive stories from hundreds of journalists spread across all time zones and to handle 35 million unique users and over 800 million page views on a monthly basis. Therefore, MySQL has the capability to process the high frequency of news submissions and requests and additionally, it offers scalability at no additional cost.
However, the performance and security benefits of OSS need to be carefully assessed, as with any software, when deciding whether to implement OSS or not. A study by Aspect Security found OSS vulnerabilities to be more common than previously thought, but that they can be addressed by following some basic security guidelines, for example those set out in a white paper released by HP.
The use of open source software does not necessarily require in-house technical expertise. Many OSS providers such as MySQL do offer technical support, at a cost considerably lower than the support offered by providers of proprietary software.
Open source cloud computing software is becoming increasingly popular (e.g. Open Stack), once again because of the lower costs involved and the obvious collaboration advantages offered by the cloud. But, the use of OSS in the cloud (public or private) introduces the risk of intellectual property infringement, which can be addressed by using one of the available license management solutions described in a set of guidelines issued by Linux.
Conclusion: Non-tech companies should inform themselves of the potential benefits of OSS and identify opportunities to leverage it. OSS can provide a more flexible cost-effective alternative than proprietary solutions, provided it is managed carefully, the ease of integration with existing (commercial) applications is considered and the risks are understood and addressed.