10 reasons for enterprises to use opensource

I don’t really understand why it happens, but for some reason far too many people think opensource is free as in gratis rather than free as in freedom. As a result, when I ask people why they would use opensource, the answers are framed in the context of cost. The three commonest answers I get are:

(a) cheaper to “buy”

(b) cheaper to run

(c) cheaper to fix

This not-so-subtle positioning of opensource as “free” somehow translates to the enterprise equivalent of pinko communist left-handed tree-hugging vegetarian, and that’s all she wrote. End of story.

So I thought it was time to provide ten reasons of a different sort….

1. Opensource makes you responsible. When you choose the components yourself, you don’t have a vendor to scream at. Or, as is often the case, a whole heap of vendors to scream at, each merrily pointing all known fingers (and a few unknown ones) at everyone else. While you fume and stew.

2. Opensource makes it easier for you to get married. When your architecture is primarily based on opensource components, software and data integration costs stay low and the process works.

3. Opensource makes you more attractive. To graduates and first-jobbers, members of Generation M, opensource has an iPod-like halo. And they know how to use the tools as well.

4. Opensource keeps your tail in shape. Scarcity models are by definition not scale-free; a hit culture prevails. Opensource, given the lower barriers to entry, allows someone to build a left-handed credit derivatives juicer because he felt like it. There’s a long-tail effect. You are more likely to find esoteric tools in an opensource world than in a closed source one. Opensource people don’t go around asking “Is there a market for this?” They solve problems and see if others have similar problems to solve.

5. Opensource makes you look younger. There’s an elixir-0f-youth effect, a future-proofing that comes from using opensource. You cannot be blackmailed at the altar of Forced Upgrade. You have optionality. That is the Free that is Opensource. The implied optionality.

6. Opensource makes you cleverer. You innovate faster because you have access to faster innovation. Whenever you look at an opensource ecosystem, try and compare it with a closed-source version. Compare it in terms of the time taken for launching in different countries, languages, whatever. I should say “try to compare it in terms of….”. There is no comparison.

7. Opensource makes you a man/woman of the world. Globalisation is about global markets and global resources and global communications. When you use opensource components, you are more likely to find people all over the world with the right knowledge and skills; proprietary skills require proprietary investment.

8. Opensource makes you fitter. Most opensource components are seen as infrastructure, as commodity, and people often say that opensource is therefore about commodity. I’ve made that mistake as well. I think we’ve got cause and effect mixed up here. Opensource commoditises, and therefore creates commodity. When you get commoditised, you tend to look for other things to differentiate you, make you stand out. You get “fitter” as a result, with the two prongs of commoditisation and looking-for-fresh-differentiation.

9. Opensource makes you more famous. At least one of the essences of opensource is Given Enough Eyeballs. Linus’s Law. The opensource model attracts eyeballs.

10. Opensource makes you safer. When code is open to inspection it is harder to create backdoors; harder to exploit weaknesses because the weaknesses get fixed faster; harder to make monoculture threats because there is a form of natural selection taking place.

And yes, the first three standard reasons are true as well. Opensource does make you richer.

31 thoughts on “10 reasons for enterprises to use opensource”

  1. Good one. I would like to add

    – Open source keeps you uptodate, especially with standards. The community is more reliable in this regard than an individual vendor.

    – Open source gives you new ideas. With so many people looking at the code, brainstorming sessions are natural, whether it is about using the software or evolving it.

  2. JP – It is interesting and at times annoying – how many people keep believing Open source to be free because you can download it from the internet without paying anything. How many times I had to encounter important people chastising Open source without ever reading something as basic as the GPL. In my experience, people who don’t want to embrace Open source take that position for some of the same reasons you mentioned. Just that they don’t want to “be” in a way that Open source requires them to “be” or don’t want to go where opensource takes them to. I have found people in many enterprises want a magical “1-800-help” number and don’t want to take charge of their own destiny. To many, Open source equates to customization – translation – potentially more expensive to manage/support; lack of standardization; what-happens-if-this-guy- leaves. Partly, many of these fears are myths, but it is a hard case to sell, nevertheless. On another note, while I am personally a true believer in Open source, in reality, I do find a difference in attitude with Generation M when it comes to “reparing/code-enhancing” vs “replacing” at the workplace. Among Generation M, when it comes to work, I find the approach is – let’s get an off-the-shelf item and move on rather than dig and fix something. Or, “let’s call the manufacturer or helpdesk.” Ironically, at home, the same people may be working on code but this time because its for fun and not work. So, going back to the enterprises, I think the use of Open source is coupled with enterprises creating a culture where work is “fun” and where “free-form” behavior is promoted. Enterprises need to fundamentally believe that empowement, democratization, and a free-form structure will work. It will be hard for enterprises to sustain use of Open source otherwise. Organizational culture needs to walk hand-in-hand with the core philosophy of Open source, which in turn, will beget all the benefits that you cited. It will be interesting to see whether Open source drives a change in organizations to “democratic innovation” or the other way round.

  3. its nice one expect the point no 2 heading!! i do not know more people happy with the concept of marriage.

  4. Your comments on open source are timely for me. I was in a discussion with a prospect recently where I put forward the idea that open source could be used to deliver a large proportion (or even, all) of the SOA Stack. There was no indication that the customer would not ‘pay’ to receive ‘support’. One of the concerns he expressed was who can ‘support’ all the software components that could be used.

    I emphasised that the overall ‘cost’ of opensource would be substatantially lower, and there was no indication that he took that to be ‘free’. So maybe the message is getting through that:

    (1) Open Source is not ‘free’

    (2) Open Source can help deliver enterprise scale applications

    (3) Using Open Source you can use the ‘best of the best’ to deliver value to a customer

    (4) Supporting Open Source is something that really needs to be considered seriously for enterprises using it in anger

    So the question is for me – how do you scale the use of Open Source within an organisation and deliver, do knowledge transfer and then support it…..

    And then there’s a question of Open Source SOA…. that’s for another day!

  5. JP,

    Nice way to summarize the main points. Posts like this make our job of evangelizing easy.

    Will there be follow up posts on:

    “10 great ways for VCs to invest (or not to) in open source companies”


  6. JP .. nice summary. It would be so nice to see this become an article in one of the widely-read IT trade magazines.

  7. It would be useful to look at the other side of point number 1. ” Open Source makes you responsible”. Too few senior IT managers are willing to take the risk implied by ‘responsibility’. Picking a major supplier is ‘safe’, even if the effort is a failure. Another way to phrase this is “Open Source gives the user control: control in terms of when to upgrade to a new version, control in terms of support (if one supplier isn’t doing the job, you’re free to contract with another), control in terms of direction and functionality (one can participate, modify, as one wishes, versus ability to change the direction of a proprietary product), and control of risk (you have source, no risk of obsolescence).

  8. lmb makes a good point that deserves to be taken further. Senior IT managers already bear a high burden of responsibility; that comes with the job description! The problem is that increasing the opportunities for control also increases the burden of responsibility: one finds oneself responsible for more “things.” If there is already more responsibility than can be realistically managed, then, like it or not, one may prefer to give up control by “outsourcing” it to that major supplier who promises to “take care of everything” (no matter how risky that promise might be). Once again the specter of the all-too-human rears its ugly head!

  9. Thanks JP – great post. I’d like to add that in my limited experience open source also allows companies to invest in talented open source guru’s rather than proprietary licenses. Talent vs. licenses. I’ll take talent.

  10. While I think your list is interesting, I have a problem with the implied premise. That premise is that what’s good for an individual is good for an enterprise. Unless an enterprise is in the software business itself, the back room IT operation is a necessary cost of doing its other business; it is not central to the business plan. As such, the enterprise wants specific services from IT, and other than that it wants it to cost as little as possible and be as little hassle as possible.
    While an individual may value responsibility, in the sense of your item number 1, an enterprise doesn’t. (I am speaking about its IT, not its main line of business.) There is at least the perception that a solution from one (at best) vendor, or a minimum of vendors, is less trouble when it comes to integration and support. Products that are designed to work together and are tested together will likely deliver a less painful (and costly) installation and deployment. In the mind of the CEO, this translates into a less troublesome, less costly (support and maintenance-wise) IT department. This leaves cycles and dollars for other enterprise initiatives.
    I also question item 2. While it is often stated that TCO for open source is lower than for closed source, I haven’t personally seen that demonstrated in any general way. Why should “software and data integration costs stay low” with open source software? The implication, of course, is that these costs are lower than they would be with closed source products in the same niche. Closed source proponents make the opposite claim. That is, they claim these ongoing costs are lower with closed source installations. Can you point to research that is definitive either way? (I’m talking about data that supports the general claim by the open or closed source advocates; anecdotes of specific cases speak only to the packages being used, and quality/usability vary over a large scale whether software is open source or closed source.)


  11. Not the first time I’ve seen these objections, Richard, both are fair and real. I have no silver bullet dogmatic answer to them.

    So let me try and explain my rationale and see what you (and other readers) think.

    Each firm has its own business model and its own consequent reliance on (or independence from) IT. Where IT is a commoditised non-differentiating back office function, I would find it hard to defend paying closed-source premiums. Such firms do exist, and they might as well get commodity software from the opensource community, a community which specialises in commodity.

    Where IT is a critical business enabler, innovation and speed to market become more important. My contention (and all you need to do is to compare OpenOffice with Office as an example) is that opensource is more aligned to these objectives of innovation and time to market.

    The TCO argument is simpler. The closed source contention can be theoretically true in cases, cases where the entire stack is acquired from one vendor. In any hybrid world, EAI costs tend to be far greater in a closed source model rather than an opensource one, as we seek to move data from one walled garden to another. There is a price to pay for proprietary formats and standards.

    This is without even going into the issue of the costs of acquiring the skills involved, and for that matter the costs of training. Here too there is a significant difference in the price point for open and closed source skills.

    I will keep an eye out on generic research on this subject; my thoughts are based on my experience rather than articles or other people’s research.

  12. These are the most stupied and silly things that I even been read.

    1. Opensource makes you responsible – It gives you more work, and you will have to spend more time in your opperation instead of your vore business.

    2. Opensource makes it easier for you to get married – WRONG – Open source doesn’t mean open standard.

    3. Opensource makes you more attractive – Your client doesn’t care if you use open sourse or commercial sw. you should be attractive in your business.

    4. Opensource keeps your tail in shape – again, you have to understand what fits best in your business, and it ca be open or commercial software.

    5. Opensource makes you look younger – What makes you look younger is your speed and finally results. Market is about results not about youngest or old..

    6. Opensource makes you cleverer. – If you have to focus in solving your gaps, you probably will lose the focus of your business. You will be clever if your choices allows you to delivery more value to your client.

    7. Opensource makes you a man/woman of the world. – hahaha no comments..

    8. Opensource makes you fitter. opensource or commercial software can makes you fitter. There a lot of commercial softwares that fits best to many industries (and faster) with support and guarantee…

    9. Opensource makes you more famous. again… you should be famous in your business.. it is about yourself and neither opensource or commercial sw can guarantee it to you.

    10. Opensource makes you safer. – Thats a big lie. Open source and commercial sw have vulnerabilities. For my business I prefer something that have a structure besides.

  13. @lmb “It would be useful to look at the other side of point number 1. ” Open Source makes you responsible”. Too few senior IT managers are willing to take the risk implied by ‘responsibility’. Picking a major supplier is ’safe’, even if the effort is a failure.”

    I guess you could always buy your way out of risk when using Open Source if you’re that concerned about a particular piece of software. MySQL AB, Canonical, IBM and others make a good living out of minimising that risk. That way you get the benefits of commercial software with the benefits of Open Source. Sites like FindOpenSourceSupport.com come in useful in those instances.

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