Confusion often reigns over how to judge free and open source software (FOSS) as people investigate using it in their businesses. Do they use Red Hat Advanced Server? Fedora? CentOS? Should they use the community edition of the Alfresco content management server or buy the product? How does one judge the “software” and whether it’s “right” for one’s business? These are all questions that confront developers and IT managers as they encounter the FOSS world.
Searching for useful lists of criteria to “measure” FOSS can be equally confusing with the wealth of systems for rating it that exist. A useful first step is to separate the idea of a FOSS project from the product world.
A project, regardless of whether it is run by a company, a foundation, or a collaborative community in the wild, is the keeper of the software. It consists of the software, the people developing it, and the FOSS license under which it is developed and distributed. The project solves a particular problem nicely, but may require a certain investment from its users to solve that problem whether in its executable or source code form. These users would rather spend their time to get a solution than their money and indeed they may have no money to spend in the particular circumstance. For developers, using the software in a FOSS project as a ready-made building block can provide extraordinary time savings. Writing good software is hard work.
A product is something that is sold by a company to a customer to solve a problem. Money changes hands, and in that transaction expectations are set. Products are more than simply the software. They may include the ease and convenience of bullet-proof installation, tutorials and documentation, services to install or configure the product, support, maintenance, upgrades, and all the other things in the product’s ecosystem. Customers would rather spend money than time for the solution. Speed is an important consideration.
Understanding this trade-off of time and money allows one to think differently about using FOSS. Customers buy products containing FOSS software the same way they buy any other software-based product. It’s a procurement problem. One concerns oneself with questions of the vendor’s viability, their service, the ecosystem around the product, and the experiences one’s peers have encountered. You apply a proper cost-benefit analysis. One can change vendors around certain FOSS projects where many providers sell products and services, but it still perturbs the environment and IT departments never do so lightly.
Using the FOSS project instead of buying the solution ready made, one is committing to a certain amount of time and self-sufficiency, but the decision can provide excellent time-to-solution for both developers and IT architects. One colleague happily paid for JBoss while using CentOS as the underlying operating system as it fit their risk profile and vendor management style. Historically the IT question was build versus buy. To this FOSS has added borrow and share.
Stephen is the Technical Director of the Outercurve Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation with the goal of bringing software developers and open source community members together to participate in open source projects.
Stephen has worked in the IT industry since 1980 as both customer and vendor. He was most recently a consultant on software business development and open source strategy. His customers included Microsoft, the Eclipse Foundation, the Linux Foundation. He's an adviser to Ohloh (acquired by SourceForge), Bitrock, Continuent, and eBox.
He organized the agenda, speakers and sponsors for the inaugural Beijing Open Source Software Forum as part of the 2007 Software Innovation Summit in Beijing. Stephen was VP Open Source Development Strategy at Optaros, a business manager at Microsoft on open source, and VP R+D and founder at Softway Systems, a venture-backed company that developed a UNIX portability environment for NT before being acquired by Microsoft. He was a long time participant and officer at the IEEE and ISO POSIX standards groups, representing both USENIX and EurOpen (E.U.U.G.) and a regular speaker and writer on open systems standards since 1991.
His personal blog: Once More unto the Breach.
Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenrwalli