Look beyond the software to the people behind it

Before embarking on open source, organisations should carefully consider the strategies and policies required to implement it successfully, writes Billy MacInnes

While the decision to adopt open source software can seem momentous, it is only the beginning of the process. Choosing the right product is the next step but, in the open source world, the criteria an organisation applies to making that choice can differ from buying traditional commercial software.

Using externally developed open source code is a different process than internal development, so companies need to identify internal stakeholders – including IT, quality assurance, and legal and business management – to review and approve what code is used and where, says Peter Vescuso, executive vice president of marketing at Black Duck Software.

Brian Green, managing director of Suse UK, believes businesses also need to consider how the technology fits into their broader IT strategy. In most cases, it needs to sit alongside an existing infrastructure so it is important to understand the impact open source will have on existing IT systems.

The IT department needs to spend time educating teams and assessing their skills to ensure they can implement and manage the chosen software, although Brian Gentile, chief executive at Jaspersoft, suggests that some teams may already possess open source skills from working on non-production or personal projects.

It is also very important to look at the ecosystem behind the product. Open source software is based on communities that develop and support particular products, so companies would be well advised to investigate the community around a product before they decide to deploy it.

A good open source citizen will share improvements they make to the software, for their own purposes, with the wider community

Richard Jones, technical director at i-KOS, puts it succinctly: “Open source is an ever-changing, volunteer-powered organism. The majority of open source software contributors are volunteers and the culture of open source is based on free sharing of found and created content.

“Look beyond the software itself to the people who are behind it. How are they behaving? Are they committed? Do they respond quickly to security issues? You want your chosen solution to come with an active, welcoming community and available talent who know the product and want to work on it.”

For businesses accustomed to dealing with vendors who sell and support their own products, the open source world can appear slightly disorienting. Fortunately, there are some safeguards, as Paul Wander, vice president at Inviqa, points out. Many products tend to be backed by a heavyweight company, such as Red Hat or Acquia, he says, so if something goes wrong “there is a serious company that will be there to catch you and support you”.

Alfresco chief executive John Powell says it is also worth looking at the licence behind the software. An Open Source Initiative (OSI) certified licence gives the user certain rights to modify the software, customise it and redistribute it.

“If you find a problem and report it, the maintainer of that software can help fix it,” Mr Powell explains. “If you make a change, you should do your best to get that accepted into the core project so you don’t have the cost of perpetual maintenance.”

Mr Jones at i-KOS adds: “A good open source citizen will share improvements they make to the software, for their own purposes, with the wider community. This concept can be quite alien to some organisations.”

Companies struggling to get to grips with the open source culture may find it easier to use a consultancy or solution provider to help them develop an open source policy and strategy. The broad range of open source software means companies are not tied to specific vendors for services and the wide selection of service providers supporting open source projects means “everyone can find a provider that meets their skill and budget requirements”, concludes Jaspersoft’s Mr Gentile.