Technology

Let's Embrace Our Open-Source Overlords

By / Jun 16, 2015 (iStock/Thinkstock)

Proprietary software tends to be an easier sell than the open-source variety, but that conversation is starting to change. The needs may be different from a traditional software platform, but the benefits of open source should give it a place in the conversation.

If your association isn’t considering open-source software to manage at least some of your enterprise offerings, you might be missing a big opportunity.

Open-source software often gets derided for its downsides—maintenance concerns, the need for development resources, concerns about security—but its huge transparency and collaboration benefits typically get missed.

That’s leading some some who have been slow to embrace open source to shift their approach. Last week, Apple threw the open-source movement a bone by making the innards of its Swift development platform available to the public. And even longtime open-source naysayer Microsoft has gotten in on the action of late.

And they’re far from alone, according to a survey released earlier this year.

The Future of Open Source Survey,” created by the firms Black Duck and North Bridge, finds that 93 percent of respondents had either increased their use of open-source software within the past year or kept it about the same. Furthermore, more than three-quarters of respondents rely on open-source software for operations, while another two-thirds use it in consumer-facing products.

(It’s worth noting that you may be using open-source software without realizing it: Most major content management systems, including WordPress and Drupal, are based on open-source code bases. Not that you’d immediately think of them in that context.)

And even in the world of marketing-heavy vendor options, open-source software is making its mark: A full 45 percent of respondents say they give open-source software consideration above a comparable proprietary option.

And some of the black marks that open source generally gets didn’t seem to bother many survey respondents. A full 43 percent said open-source software was easier to deploy than proprietary platforms, while 58 percent said it was easier to scale than vendor solutions.

One problem that surfaced in the study is that even though companies are embracing this open-source stuff, relatively few are creating policies to ensure the software is up to standards. More than 55 percent said they didn’t have any policies around such software. And worse, more than 50 percent said they struggled to understand security vulnerabilities that might affect their code.

“In the results this year, it has become more evident that companies need their management and governance of open source to catch up to their usage,” Black Duck CEO Lou Shipley said in a news release. “This is critical to reducing potential security, legal, and operational risks while allowing companies to reap the full benefits OSS provides.”

Stay Flexible to Open Source

Those benefits are why companies like Hewlett Packard are jumping in with both feet with their own open-source productivity systems. But too often, the issues with such software turn out to be both practical (it has different needs from proprietary software) and political (those needs may make it a tougher sell to the board).

Nonetheless, it’s important to keep in mind the big perks of embracing an open-source solution:

You know exactly what you’re getting. When you buy a copy of Windows or Apple OS X, you’re working within a black box of sorts. There’s a lot of stuff in there you can’t see, and while you know the basics, you can’t exactly do an audit of the code for security issues. In the enterprise world, the ability to see what you’re getting can be a huge benefit.

You have control of the software’s direction. With proprietary software, if your association is small and doesn’t have the clout of the product’s other users, you may struggle to get the customizations you’re looking for. But with open source, you can devote development resources to ensuring that software actually gets the bells and whistles you need to do the job. If you can devote those resources, you can help define the software’s path.

Open source tends to follow current standards. The reason Mozilla Firefox gained so much momentum on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer about a decade ago has everything to do with programming strategy. IE, being proprietary and without much competition, didn’t have a reason to keep innovating quickly. Firefox, on the other hand, was in a spot to iterate relatively quickly and drive online development—and when Google Chrome came into the picture, this process moved even faster. This is true of a lot of open-source software. It can ensure you’re working with this year’s model.

There may be hidden cultural benefits. If you have to hire a tech person to maintain an open-source platform in-house, or if you rely on a vendor to do so, you may help your association better prepare for future needs by pushing the importance of code and development culturally. In five years, a code-savvy staffer who’s leading the way on developing and managing a back-end system is going to have a voice in future technology decisions. People like that can help give your organization a push toward tech smarts.

None of this is to say that open source is as good as other options—in fact, it may not be!—but if you’re making a big software shift in the near future, it should be on the table.

Open-source technology is often misunderstood outside the IT department, and the quicker we can ensure everyone understands its benefits, the easier it’ll be to embrace.

With great responsibility comes great power.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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