Monday, March 9, 2009

Open Source Software - 'Free' As In Markets

Open Source Software - Free As In Markets

“Free software is free as in markets, not free as in beer,” open source software analyst and trainer Nick Mailer told public sector delegates at this month’s Headstar masterclass on the use of open source solutions in the public sector.

As this catchphrase suggests, free and open source software is not necessarily cost-free, but offers a freedom of ownership and use not possible with most proprietary software.

“Open source software is not the same as public domain software, there is a system of licences that govern its use,” Mailer said. One of best known licences is the ‘GNU’ licence, named after GNU ( ),
a free and open source computer operating system. GNU (a recursive acronym short for ‘Gnu’s Not Unix’)
is built around a ‘kernel’ of another well-known piece of free software, Linux, with the combination known as GNU-Linux.

Under the GNU Public Licence, users of the software are granted four freedoms, which together define the culture of the wider free and open source software movement. These are the freedom to run the program for any purpose; the freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs; the freedom to redistribute copies; and the freedom to improve the program and release your improvements to the public. The GNU project is overseen by the Free Software Foundation, a non-profit organisation funded by supporting companies and individuals.

The terms of this type of licence do not apply if a programme is adapted to distribute within a single organisation, Mailer said – there has to be a decision to distribute the software to a wider audience after adaptation.

In the public sector, it is not entirely clear what this would mean, as it has not been tested in law, but it is likely to mean that the full terms of a licence would apply if a piece of open source software is adapted by one public agency and then used by another, he said.

So what solutions are out there?

There are now free and open source solutions for all standard computing tasks, from file back-up to desk-top publishing, Mailer said. His own company, the web hosting specialist Positive Internet, uses open source software in every aspect of its work, including staff desktops and internal business systems.

Good collections of open source tools include the websites ( and (, Mailer said. The internet itself is based on open source software – neither Google or Facebook could have been created without it – and among the most widespread free solutions are the set of technologies known as the ‘LAMP stack’, he said. This acronym refers to refers to Linux operating system; the Apache web server; the MySQL database; and the PHP, PERL or Python programming languages.

One of the key reasons people are increasingly drawn to open source solutions is the fact that they offer built-in technical advantages, Mailer said.

Many free software solutions are developed continually by online communities of hundreds of thousands of volunteer developers working together, interacting in a structured way to ensure that every new improvement or feature is based on peer review, he said.

“Unix is not just a piece of software, it’s a culture. And it has spawned an ecosystem of small programmes that are designed to do one thing only very well, and interact with other programmes in specific ways that do not deposit a lot of unnecessary silt to clog up the operating system.

“The resulting programmes are more functional than many commercial programmes, for example VLC is an open source video player that does not want to take you to a commercial media portal all the time. Nothing is oblique, because it is all open and documented – programmes talk to each other and know about each other. Bugs do exist, but they tend to be spotted and patched more quickly.”

Above all, open source communities do not face the kinds of commercial pressures faced by developers of proprietary software, Mailer said. “The proprietary problem is that there is a strain between technical, financial and marketing agenda. This means there is a pressure to release new software versions too early, which in open source would have been released as Beta versions or had more testing.”

“They need new releases to make profits – it is a rational approach. So they say upgrade, or don’t use our product. But with free software, you have a rational technical agenda. There is a point behind each upgrade.”

With closed source code, upgrading an operating system or a piece of software also often means that other pieces of software stop working or conflict, and you have to check each piece individually to see if separate upgrades are needed, Mailer said. “The ecosystem is artificially constrained.” However, with Linux ‘distributions’ software packages often upgrade each other automatically since each one has access to the other’s code.

Ultimately, “if a proprietary project goes wrong, you can’t do anything about it, because it’s not yours to do anything about,” Mailer said.

The need to restrict access to source code leads to other restrictions, he said. For example, you can boot a computer directly from a Linux distribution held on a pen drive to see if it works, since there are no restrictions on how the software can be held or transferred.

Another strength of open source software that could be of huge importance and value to public bodies is the potential to access data more easily in the future, as archives or public records. The use of open formats means that even where technologies are outdated, it should be evident how one can gain access to information that has been stored, Mailer said.

As an example of how proprietary formats can lead to obsolescence, he cited the BBC’s Domesday Project of the mid 1980s, which had stored information about the UK on laser disks in formats that quickly became outdated and unreadable. “The joke was, it was harder to read the BBC Domesday disks than the original Domesday book,” he said.

Of course, the main reason people are drawn to consider using free software is that it is generally not only free as in markets, but free as in beer as well – or at least, that it is free to licence, even if there may be costs incurred in training staff or installing and tweaking the software.

The key to a true understanding of the costs of switching to open source – the total cost of ownership – is to break the process down into clear costed stages, Mailer said.
The first cost is incurred even before deployment, in the analysis stage – this is the work needed in working out what to do, ‘pre-training’, perhaps involving attending courses or conferences and planning the best course of action.

These costs are real, but they should be similar to those incurred with using proprietary solutions, because whatever course is taken careful planning should be carried out and any deployment will lead to changes which one needs to anticipate. “Planning costs may be higher for free software, as there could be more cultural change involved, but in fact upgrading proprietary software could be an even bigger change for people, and open source software might be better at opening older versions of documents,” he said.

The second stage is procurement. “Free software can cost you as much as proprietary software, or it can cost you nothing. Procurement costs certainly should be less, but they could be the same or only a little bit less if you buy packages that include installation, maintenance, upgrade or training. Remember though that if other services like these are included, you are distributing your maintenance and upgrade costs, not just buying CDs containing one copy each of the software. It is important not to double-count these costs when calculating total cost of ownership.”

Training costs could well be comparable for open source software if it is unfamiliar to staff, but it should also be seen as an opportunity to boost IT skills and get better value from your systems, Mailer said. “Training should raise skill levels, not just shift them from one software package to another”.

Upgrade costs should be where you see real savings with open source solutions in years to come, he said, as these should be lower and less frequent.

One recent high profile public sector deployment has taken place in the German city of Munich, where the city council has been migrating office software and then desktop operating systems from proprietary to open source.

Interestingly, the council has found that overall costs of the new systems have been roughly equal to the old system, Mailer said, but other benefits had accrued. For example, the organisation now has more flexibility as it is not locked into proprietary systems, and the process of switching over uncovered huge areas of past inefficient practice, such as thousands of duplicated document templates.

What of common objections to the use of open source software, or reasons for people’s reluctance to experiment with it, particularly in risk-averse public bodies?

A common one is that it is seems less secure, since everyone knows the source code, and there is no-one to sue if problems occur, Mailer said.

In fact, this should not be the case, he said. For one thing, the way open source software packages tend to work well with each other means that security patches are often deployed in one go across multiple packages. “They are able to do this because all the source code is open. This is what happens with free software – there is a network effect. This also means earlier versions can remain stable for longer.”

There is also a pretty good track record for open source, Mailer said. “It shouldn’t surprise us that people are sceptical, but there are good historical antecedents. Without open source software, the internet itself would not exist, but in the early days of the internet people raised the same objections that they now do against open source: who can I sue if it goes down? Yet it works.”

Another worry often voiced by potential users is that open source products might become dormant after their organisation has adopted them, but in fact the risks of this are no higher than with proprietary software, he said. “With open source, you can revivify dormant projects yourself, or search the web to see if there is another group of users that is still active. But in the proprietary world, once a project is dead, no-one is aloud to revive it without permission: so here there really can be an extinct volcano.”

A more thorny issue is that of the ‘recalcitrant application’ – the bits and pieces of old proprietary software running within an organisation to carry out a specific critical task that cannot be changed and cannot run on Linux, for example.

Organisations have a few options, Mailer said. The first is to recode the application, which might be a showstopper, but might be possible. The second is to use software tools such as Wine, which allows Windows applications to run on Linux. Wine is not a Windows emulator but a translator, that tries to translate system calls to work within Linux, and the older the application you are trying to run, the better this is likely to work, he said.

Another possible tool is Mono, a cross-platform development application that allows applications to run within Linux. If all else fails, you can run an application under virtualisation, or in a ‘ghetto’ of its own, which can be structured to access the main infrastructure on Linux, Mailer said.

So should organisations look to switch over to free software wholesale?

“For most people, the best approach will be to run a hybrid system,” Mailer said. “You can migrate some layers to start with, so it’s not so scary – introduce small projects, one by one, which you can still access through proprietary systems to start with so it doesn’t look unfamiliar.

“You might try using an open source web browser to start with, for example, and increase from there. Migrate as time and inclination allows – then it will be easy to revert at any stage.

“You should have an environment where you at least look at the alternatives.”

When it comes to the reality of implementation, it is likely that your biggest problems will be non-technical, Mailer said. “Little empires have been built, and political war may break out. People may say their skills relate to the old system, and cannot be translated. But you could tell them: ‘look, you have a huge range of generalised wisdom that you only think is specific’.

“When staff do complain about the switch, giving a technocratic answer is not that interesting. Cost savings are also not that interesting to everyone. You need to enthuse them, to stress that free software is free as in freedom. You could invite people to submit ideas for improvement, and act on them.”

In the end, you will get as much out of open source software as you are prepared to put in, Mailer said. “You have to work to maximise the benefits of open source, it is not just magic dust to sprinkle. If you don’t respect the communities behind it, it will just be just a tokenistic move.

“Don’t promise too much, manage expectations, make it clear that there will be problems, but emphasise the philosophy and say it makes us master of our own destinies.”

Source: E-Government Bulletin Live

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