Should I Be Using Open Source Software in My Small Business?

I won’t hide it – I’m a huge fan of Open Source Software (abbreviated to OSS). One of the reasons I started my own business is to help small businesses save money on IT. One way I explore this is to take advantage of the plethora of OSS options available.  

So what exactly is Open Source Software and can you use it in your small business?

Let’s explore!

What is Open Source Software?

You’ve probably heard about it before and may even know what it is. Open Source Software are computer programs where the source code (how us computer geeks tell the computer what to do) is freely available to anyone. This is quite different to “Proprietary” or “Closed Source” software, such as Microsoft Word, where the source code is only available to the organisation that owns it.

Why this is good thing?

1. Security

With the source code available it is possible for anyone to inspect the code and potentially identify any security issues. And when issues are identified they can be immediately fixed by anyone with the right skills. In theory this is great, but just because it is possible doesn’t mean anyone has actually done this for the specific piece of software that you might be considering.

2. Certainty

With proprietary software there is always a chance that the company will not be around tomorrow. Depending on the type of system it will either no longer be supported or if it’s hosted no longer be available. With OSS you always have the choice of paying someone to continue to support the system, or if it’s popular it’s likely that someone else may step in to fill the void for support.

3. Flexibility

Find an open source project that meets 80% of your requirements? Having the source code available means you have the flexibility to leverage the hard work of others and pay for someone to modify it to meet your exact requirements.

What are some examples of Open Source Software?

Here are a few examples of Open Source Software you might already have heard of

Linux One of the most common systems people think of when talking about Open Source is the Linux Kernel and the related components that make up the Linux Operating System.
WordPress The Content Management System that started out as a blogging engine is now used for lots of different types of websites. It powers %27 percent of the web according to the WordPress website.
FireFox Firefox is the second most popular web browser in the world.

Legal Jargon

There are a number of different legal licenses involved in the open source community. The most common is the Gnu Public License (GPL) but there are many others such as the MIT, Apache and more. Each of these have specifics about what you can and can’t do with the code.

If you want to see just how many are used then check out this list here!

Most open source licenses require that any changes that you make to the released source code are made freely available to anyone that asks. This is one of the things that keeps OSS projects evolving over time.

Open Source means free, right?

While OSS is freely available is doesn’t mean that it is not going to cost your business money. I advocate using online systems for small businesses. This means at the very least you have to pay for hosting.

There is also support cost to consider.

  • Some OSS are “commercial open source”. This means that the company that maintains the software provides a commercial (for money) version that includes support. Often this is provided as part of their own hosted version wit’s specific features are only available to paying customers.
  • If no commercial support is available you will have to pay someone to support the system for you. Even if you have the skills to do it on your own, you need to consider the time cost for self supporting. Is your time better spent growing your business or figuring out software issues?

The challenge with OSS

Unless the project is popular many open source projects are created by a very small group of people and often receive no updates over time.  The risk with this is that you may be exposed to security issues that could put your business and your customer data at risk.

So do I recommend using OSS for small businesses?

Yes!   In truth you are probably already using some Open Source Software.  This may be directly such as WordPress or Firefox or you may also indirectly be using it such as Linux on your web servers, etc.

As with any part of your IT solutions my recommendation is to evaluate all options available to you when selecting software.  There is no need to limit yourself to just Proprietary or Open Source.   However make sure you are comfortable with the support options available to you if you are considering using an Open Source Solution.  I find that if there is more than one company offering support for it then this is a good indicator that it’s a more popular project and should be around for a while!

If you want to read more about OSS you can check out the Open Source Initiative’s website for more details.

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