Several years into government agency adoption of open source, the landscape of vendors, platforms, tools and technologies has expanded significantly. The days of counting major open source options (Red Hat Linux, MySQL Oracle, Apache Web Server, etc.) on one hand have passed, as dozens of solutions from established technology vendors and upstart providers have hit the market.
With increased open source adoption comes increased confusion, as agencies now have information hitting them from all sides on the benefits and drawbacks of each open source solution. The challenge for government agency decision makers is to filter the myths from the realities. As agencies move forward with open source projects and evaluate new solutions, there are five prevailing myths worth considering.
1. Making your code open source means people will work for free. When it comes to a federal agency making its code open source, there is often an expectation that, “if you build it, they will come ... and work for free.” Open source may draw attention, but there are not thousands of people on stand-by ready to contribute to any open source project that gets published. Even Apache Hadoop, arguably the most popular open source project, drew fewer than 50 contributors in the last year.
2. Traditional software vendors avoid open source at all costs. Some assume that established software vendors protect their proprietary software turf due to fears that open source will siphon away product delivery, services and support revenues. The reality is that innovative, established software vendors are enthusiastically moving toward open source. Adobe, Google and Amazon, among others, generate significant revenue based on open source projects. These companies have embraced open source because it is increasingly difficult to justify creating the basic building blocks of an operating system, database, web server, etc., over and over again. The most successful open source projects reflect the natural progression of software innovation moving up the stack, while the standardization and commoditization of components drive them toward open source.
3. Open source projects speed time to innovation. A persistent myth is that when a project becomes open source, an agency can shrink the “time-to-market” for innovative solutions. True, open source fosters innovation by making many of the basic building blocks of software freely and openly available, in turn allowing larger communities to leverage the basics without having to rewrite the components over and over again. It is also true that the success of these components is based on a stable set of core capabilities that do not change dramatically over time. As a result, core components actually deliver innovation at a slower pace than traditional software.
4. Open source software automatically saves you money. Upfront costs associated with commercial software are typically higher than downloading some open source project for free. That said, the costs of an overall IT transformation are largely based on the personnel costs associated with implementing an agency transformation. These personnel costs are variable — largely driven higher or lower by the tools leveraged for implementation. As a result, the best tools combined with the best personnel will ultimately deliver the best project on time and on budget.
5. Open source software is lower quality. The landscape of open source projects is no different from technology projects involving other types of software. There are projects of very high quality, some of very low quality, and plenty that lie somewhere in the middle. Open source software in many cases will be the superior option, but as with any technology, agencies must research options on a case-by-case basis, understand who contributes to an open source project, the background of these contributors, how active the project will be, and how many people use this project at an enterprise scale.
Paget is technical director, Content & Analytics for adobe