The Open Source Phenomenon:
How it is Affecting Business and Education.
By Dr. Russ Wright
Open source software, with the unique license that gives the user many rights and freedoms, is transforming business and education. Once thought of as hobbyist programming, open source now has many products that are competitive with commercial proprietary software. This paper explores the perception of programming methods used to create open source programs, the security of the open source model, the evolution of the business model used to sell open source software, and the impact of open source on education and business.
The Open Source Phenomenon: How it is Affecting Business and Education.
The phenomenon of open-source software is permeating the software market. There is much debate over which type of software is best, open source or proprietary, over topics such as security, development methodology and business models. Open Source Software (OSS) is now posing significant competition to proprietary or closed source software in several markets (Jaisingh, See-To, & Tam, 2008). Open source software has matured to the point where it is a viable alternative to proprietary commercial offerings (Fitzgerald 2006). Ignoring the benefits of open source in the ever-changing software market would be a foolish decision for a development shop, and a blind allegiance or strict adherence to either software model will eliminate possible solutions to technological problems.
Open Versus Closed Source
In the world of software development, there are basically two types of software. The first type is open source, where the source code is freely provided with the application. The second type is closed source, where the application comes pre-compiled for installation and the owner of the program does not freely provide the source code. A simple definition of open source software (OSS) is software that allows the users access the source code, to which they may make improvements, perform bug fixes, change or enhance the functionality, and redistribute the original program or the derivative work to others who can, in turn, do the same according to their own needs (Sen, Subramaniam, & Nelson, 2008). Closed-source software, more often referred to as proprietary, usually has a copyright owner who can exercise control, through the use of a license, over what users can do with the software. This limit includes the type or number of machines on which the software can be installed and the number of users who can use the application (Castelluccio, 2008). Therefore by the nature of the license, open-source software gives the user more freedom to decide how they will use the software, what they will modify to meet their needs, and when it is most advantageous to make changes to the program in their environment. Open source software, because of the open nature, also has a unique development model causing companies to rethink the way they do business.
There are many arguments both for and against the security of open source code. Some believe because the source code for open source software is readily available for inspection by “many eyes”, then the code is inherently more secure. On the other side of the debate, others believe that through secrecy and obscurity, the code is secure because only a few people truly know how it works. In a recent study by Hoepman & Jacobs (2007), the authors make the argument that opening the source code allows a third party to determine how much risk is involved in using a particular program, allows developers to create fixes for the bugs found, and forces the developer to allocate more time to writing better quality code (p. 81). The argument presented here has merit. By allowing “many eyes” to see the code, the problems can be fixed must faster. The one possible exception is if no one bothers to look at the code until the security is breached. Still, the advantages of having open source code critiqued by many will far outweigh the disadvantages of closed source.
There are those in the open source community who believe that the “many eyes” model is not good enough because it does not go far enough. Laurie (2006), posits in the paper on open source and security that the “many eyes” concept only applies when a bug is found. Then the developer who found the bug can post the issue and many developers will work together to quickly find the solution. Most developers do not have the experience to identify where the problem exists just by looking at the source code (p. 60). This theory is still contested and supported by many within the open source community. There is no clear answer and this point of contention continues to be a stumbling block for open source adoption.
Proponents of proprietary software often argue that opening the source code allows an attacker access to information that would be helpful in creating and launching an attack against an application. In a recent study of increasing software security, the authors contend that closed source projects often use poor methods for coding practices, project management, change control and quality control (Hoepman & Jacobs, 2007). The authors also posit that when the source code is opened, the software projects cannot get away with poor practices because they are immediately evident as discovered when the source code. This fact was made evident when the source code for the Deibold voting machines was distributed on the Internet and the source code revealed horrible programming errors and vulnerabilities. Therefore open source software, by providing the source code and more rigorous coding standards and methods, provides the most security. The myth of open source programmers being lazy coders when compared to the proprietary development shops is more often than not, quite the opposite.
Programming Model Perception
The perception of the development model for open source software is often incorrect as popular opinion portrays a group of lonely geeks in their mom’s basements working to create a program that will be released into the wild without support. According to Baird (2008), although some open source projects are still created by volunteers working in an ad-hoc fashion, most are developed by paid programmers working for not-for-profit organizations or by proprietary companies that support internal open source development and proprietary development (p. 233). It is very rare to find a developer who only works on open source projects. More often than not, an open source developer also works on proprietary projects. Developers from both open and proprietary shops benefit from the body of source and libraries that are free for use in developing their programs. A great example of a company that pays programmers to work on open source projects is the end-user software OpenOffice. The OpenOffice project is strongly supported by Sun Microsystems, who pays and provides developers to maintain the program (Woods, 2005). OpenOffice is an open source office suite with word processor, spreadsheets, presentations and database tools that rivals any commercially available office suite. Therefore this incorrect perception of open source software creation adds to the confusion over how free software can yield profit or reduce costs. Finding the true total cost of ownership (TCO) of open source software is a confusing topic for many and requires further discussion.
In the early years of open source software commercialization, there were two basic models. According to Baird (2008), the two forms were value-added support or software-as-a-loss-leader (p. 235). For the value-added model, a vendor would provide the software for free and get the customer to sign up for support to install and configure the open source application. In the other model, the vendor would provide the open source program and then sell proprietary extensions that added more functionality to the open source program. This business model has evolved into vendors providing a real mix of both open and proprietary packages.
The blending of open and proprietary software creates much confusion about how free software can be profitable for a company. Economists are often mystified and struggle to identify how open source software can generate income for a company and struggle to come up with new models to define Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). Fichman (2004) developed a possible solution that might fit the constantly shifting world using a theory of real options investment analysis. In summation, real options analysis is a method used in stock analysis to provide a way to calculate TCO where flexibility must be exceptionally high and much uncertainty is possible. This exceptionally high flexibility and much uncertainty defines the world of open source software. As a result of this research companies can quantify and report upon the costs associated with using open source software. This represents a significant step forward in the acceptance of open source software in both education and enterprise.
Maturation of Open Source
In a paper on the transformation of open source software, Fitzgerald (2006), posited that the changes in security, programming model and business model have all contributed to the open source phenomenon taking on a new form he calls OSS 2.0. This theory is echoed in the Scacchi (2007), paper where the author discusses the recent research results and emerging opportunities in Free/Open Source Software development (FOSSD). The author concludes that open source development has created new types and kinds of socio-technical work practices, development processes and community networking (p. 465). There is also much opportunity for researchers to discover, observe, analyze, model and simulate these practices and processes primarily because of the open nature of the projects themselves, publicly provides the research materials.
FOSSD project source code, artifacts, and on-line repositories represent and offer new publicly available data sources of a size, diversity, and complexity not previously available for research, on a global basis. FOSSD projects and project artifact repositories contain process data and product artifacts that can be collected, analyzed, shared, and be re-analyzed in a free and open source manner. (p. 466)
Therefore the open source community has evolved past the early days and stereotypical models into a modern and mature solution, called OSS 2.0, for both education and enterprise. Corporations and places of learning can both benefit from incorporating OSS 2.0 into their technology structure.
The Impact of Open Source on Education
The apparent readiness of open source in the market sparked many changes in the attitude of educators towards using FOSS to educate students. This shift in perception, although not complete, is creating an environment where open source is finding purchase, albeit small, in both education and enterprise. According to a study of the willingness of Chief Information Officers, (CIO) and Chief Academic Officers (CAO) to use open source software conducted by Van Rooij (2007), the participants had negative perceptions of the value of commercial software because of the problems experienced with implementation of commercial software and the lack of fit with the desired needs and functions. Because of the situation of limited funding for education projects and the enticement of an opportunity to collaborate with peers, open source software was the best perceived solution because it provided the promise of control over the end result (p. 446). Therefore open source represents a viable alternative to proprietary solutions because the decision makers and staff perceive the value of open source to be first the lower cost, second they value the opportunity to collaborate with peers and third the control over the end result of the programming effort. The failure of vendors to meet the needs of the customer pushed the educators towards open source because it holds the promise of a solution that offers the ability to meet the desired needs. These perceived benefits sparked the creation of some exceptional open source programs for education.
oodle, a software program for Internet-based courses and websites, with functionality similar to the commercial program Blackboard, is a great example of open source education software. According to the Moodle website:
The word Moodle was originally an acronym for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment, which is mostly useful to programmers and education theorists. It’s also a verb that describes the process of lazily meandering through something, doing things as it occurs to you to do them, an enjoyable tinkering that often leads to insight and creativity. As such it applies both to the way Moodle was developed, and to the way a student or teacher might approach studying or teaching an online course. (“About Moodle – MoodleDocs,” n.d.)
One shining example of innovation with Moodle is covered in a case study (Marquart & Rizzi, 2009) where they used Moodle to move from a predominantly classroom model to a blended learning and training environment for the tutoring staff. The BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) program uses tutors to teach children living in low income, urban communities. The BELL program selected Moodle because of the open source and therefore cost effective (p. 52). The study concludes that using Moodle saved them money and it provided an exceptional platform for the tutoring program which produced significant measurable benefits and outcomes. Therefore the implementation of Moodle allowed a not-for-profit organization to positively transform a tutoring program on a small budget and see significant educational benefits. This is one of the positive ways that open source is transforming education.
The Impact of Open Source on Enterprise
Although many still debate open source software as an alternative to proprietary solutions, this is merely noise designed to draw attention to open source products because most IT shops are no longer supported by one vendor but are instead blended shops of both open source and proprietary products. In a study of several IT shops, Baird (2008) puts forth the notion that most current enterprise IT is a mix of both proprietary and open-source solutions. The study goes further to explain that this phenomenon is true in both the private sector and government facilities. The reasons given for this blend are practical more than idealogical. As governments and companies reorganize and offices are merged, multiple disparate IT systems must be integrated together. According to the study, there are four primary reasons that despite the rhetoric to the contrary, IT shops are a mix:
(1) an enterprise’s IT is essentially built anew and requires specific solutions, some of which are open-source and some proprietary, (2) an enterprise builds upon legacy systems and the “modernization” requires implementation of both approaches, (3) a government enterprise has to interface with technology that is popular with its citizens which may encompass both approaches, and (4) vendors have embraced business strategies that incorporate the distribution and support of both open-source and proprietary software. In all of these cases, the key to success for the enterprise is to assure interoperability and maximize the efficiency and value of the combined technologies (p. 234).
Therefore the rhetoric about open source not being a viable solution for IT shops is false. The use of open source along side proprietary software is the correct model of implementation that will meet the most needs of technology users.
A second place where open source really impacts enterprise is the development methods used by programmers. Open source software development methodology evolved just like the software and developed an exceptionally good model for delivering quality code. The Mozilla project exemplifies the development process used in open source. The methodology used by the developers of Mozilla, who make the open source browser Firefox, is an extremely disciplined methodology that is copied by many open source and proprietary development shops (DiBona, 2006). Many of the tools created by the Mozilla team were released as open source and then found their way into other large development shops that adopted the tools and methodology proven by the success of the Mozilla software projects. Therefore the methodology developed by the Mozilla organization has added a significant amount of quality not only to open source projects but to proprietary software development too.
Ignoring Open Source is a Mistake
Despite the attention seeking noise from both camps, Open source is here to stay and ignoring the benefits in the ever-changing software market would be a foolish decision for a vendor, educator or development shop. The costs, which can be measured in TCO, provide a clear analysis of how open source, when mixed with proprietary software creates a beneficial solution. Right now the education market has an opening for open source to truly take advantage of the maturity achieved by software vendors. Open source projects also contributed many tools and methodologies that will benefit any software development project regardless of the license assigned to the final product.
Use What Works Best for Your Situation
A blind allegiance and strict adherence to either software model will eliminate possible solutions to technology problems. Open source is attractive because of the control over the code and the ability to make changes and fixes as desired. Proprietary software also has merits in the support provided and the stability of a long term relationship company. A CIO or CAO, if they are honest with themselves should seriously consider the possibility of using open source and proprietary solutions together to create a best-fit solution. Each model has merits that when properly implemented together in a mixed environment represent to best possible solutions for the majority of situations and users.
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