Mixing Open Source and Not Open Source: The Benefits and Challenges

In last month’s Open Source community feature, I discussed how proprietary software companies Microsoft and Apple were using open-source techniques in their own development. (You can find that piece here.) This month, we’ll go over how end-user organizations have combined both proprietary and open-source solutions in their own IT environments, as well as the pros and cons of doing that.

First of all, it’s important to point out that most companies with substantial IT shops are already doing this to some extent. Very few organizations will limit themselves to either proprietary or open-source solutions providers. Rather, they’ll use the best tools at the best price points. The purpose of this piece, then, is not to convince people that they should blend them, but just to offer a look at some of the benefits and disadvantages.

Even the most bitter partisans on either side of the proprietary-open source divide would have to admit that the solutions their counterparts have devised over the past few years have improved considerably. This has raised the level of overall competition, giving individual and corporate consumers more and better products and services at better prices.

One of the main factors that has boosted open source’s popularity in all environments — whether corporate, public sector, academic or personal — is cost. The front-end expenses are usually nil, but money can become an issue when it comes to training, support and other back-end expenditures. Still, open-source solutions are typically low cost.

Yet while the price, or lack thereof, is often a draw, more often than not, the most significant reason behind adoption is flexibility: the ability to look at the code behind the software and customize it to suit the needs of the user. Add to that the vast array of high-quality proprietary products around operating systems, databases, network defense and so forth, and you have a formidable IT tool kit for the execution of virtually any task or project.

However, there are challenges involved with a mixed IT environment as well. Obviously, a significant issue is that proprietary systems have restrictions around changes that can be made to them. Freeware and free software also have rules around usage, modification and distribution that must be followed. Keeping up with all the policies around every single solution used in a single IT shop can be a daunting task.

Additionally, there is a certain level of dogmatism within the open-source community. One of the most off-putting things about this group is how convinced of its own rightness it is, and its almost religious devotion to its own ideas. Members of the community often have a prejudice against tools that come from the proprietary sphere, disdaining them because they believe open-source technologies are flat-out better, they can’t make performance adjustments to proprietary offerings or both.

Still, most organizations have seen the value in combining proprietary and open-source solutions. Clearly, the benefits — more variety, lower overall cost and greater flexibility — outweigh the disadvantages.

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Brian Summerfield

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