Open Source

How scalable is Open Source?

Open source comes with both benefits and challenges, but the good news is that it can be a viable option for organizations of all sizes.

Small businesses with small budgets can save a lot of money by deploying open source software--at least in theory. The Linux operating system and office productivity software such as Open Office can be downloaded free. That sounds a lot better than paying $200 for each system's OS and $300-500 more for an Office suite.

Also in theory, large companies stand to save even more because they need so many more copies of each software program. Multiply $500 savings per machine by 100 computers and we’re looking at substantial cost savings: $50,000.

But is open source really scalable enough to grow with your company? Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of switching to open source solutions for both small and large companies.

The cost factor

We included the caveat that the savings mentioned above are theoretical, because deployment of open source software may carry hidden costs that affect the comparison with commercial software. For example:

  • The learning curve for open source software may be greater, especially for end users who are not "power users." Depending on the particular distribution and the graphical interface, an open source operating system may require more technical skill to master.
  • Administrative overhead may also be greater, as IT professionals are expected to master a command line interface and be proficient in scripting, writing their own device drivers, and so forth.
  • Technical support may not be provided by the vendor, or may cost extra. Of course, there are also commercial distributions of open source products that do include tech support, but their cost is not zero and may even approach or exceed that of proprietary software.

For example, according to the Red Hat web site at http://www.redhat.com/rhel/compare/server/, a per-system annual support subscription for Enterprise Linux AS costs $1,499 (standard) to $2,499 (premium). Thus, in evaluating or planning for an open source deployment, always be sure you’re comparing "apples to apples" by including any additional costs for training, overhead, support, etc.

Benefits of Open Source

Cost considerations aside, open source software can provide a number of benefits, especially to technically savvy users. These include:

  • Because the source code is available and the licenses generally allow modification, your in-house programmers can customize it to fit your needs.
  • Another benefit is "security through disclosure"--anyone can examine the source code and discover security flaws, and anyone can write fixes for them; you don’t have to wait for the software vendor to do so.
  • Open source software that has matured and been through the peer-review process continually for years is reliable; as an example, much of the software on which the Internet runs (DNS, Sendmail, Perl, etc.) is open source.
  • Most open source software enjoys a great deal of community support--user groups, web boards, newsgroups, mailing lists, etc. where you can go to ask questions and get help.

Open source advocates tend to "stick together" and share knowledge just as they share the software. However, in some communities you may find that "newbies"--both those who are new to technology and those who are skilled in Windows administration but have little experience with open source--are not particularly warmly welcomed.

In the past, many open source users projected a somewhat elitist attitude and scorned anyone who found recompiling kernels "too difficult" or who wanted an intuitive graphical interface. In recent years, open source advocates have opened up their doors more and started recruiting average users as well as techies, perhaps realizing that the more successful users are when they try open source software, the more widespread and respected open source will become. This has led to the development of much more user-friendly open source programs.

Deploying Open Source in the small business environment

The trend toward making things more user-friendly makes it easier to deploy open source in small business environments where you may not have highly skilled full-time IT personnel. However, just because it’s free or low cost doesn’t mean you should treat it more casually than expensive proprietary software. Planning and testing are just as important (and perhaps more so, when dealing with inexperienced users) as with any other software.

Small businesses may find it easier to start with open source servers, sticking with Windows (and/or Macintosh) on the desktop. This avoids the problem of the end-user learning curve, and if you have only a handful of desktops, they are likely to come with an operating system installed. Even if not, the cost difference for desktop operating systems for ten computers, for example, may be less than the cost difference for a single instance of a server OS. You can still save money by using productivity applications such as Open Office that run on Windows.

Deploying Open Source in the enterprise

In an enterprise environment, the sheer volume of machines makes any change in operating systems and applications a costly and time consuming undertaking. Whether you’re switching to open source for servers, the desktop, applications, or all of the above, you should first test all of the new software thoroughly in a lab environment and then run a pilot program with one department or group of users before rolling out the change on a large scale.

The best time to make such a change is when you would otherwise be upgrading your current software. For example, if the operating system you’re using is at the end of its support life and you’re about to be forced into upgrading to a new version, that’s the most cost-effective time to make the switch to open source.

Other deployment considerations

Switching to open source doesn’t have to mean you’re "out there on your own."  Vendors such as Hewlett Packard and IBM offer services to customize and integrate Linux/UNIX software and hardware, perform on-site installation and assist with migration, training and support.

Summary

Open source software provides both benefits and challenges to organizations of all sizes. Properly chosen and deployed, open source operating systems and applications can scale to meet almost any need in both the server and desktop space.

About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

10 comments
mrjunaidali
mrjunaidali

OpenSource is very scalable...at least you have plenty of choices between softwares.. and MySQL has the biggest user bank..and its not only because its Free its because of performance and reliability as well.... LINUX do not crashes every day ... if you count the work loss in those crashed OS Days you will find LINUX support more cheapest then any OS..

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

?The learning curve for open source software may be greater,? The FOSS community is very open and helpful to new users. There?s far more support for new users and technical issues available online for free. Check your local book store and take the time to do your reading and legwork if you prefer to avoid the online forums. Ubuntu Linux is dead simply to try, install and user Xandros Linux is meant to integrate with Windows networks cleanly Linspire Linux is meant to provide a near-Windows user experience ?Administrative overhead may also be greater,? LDAP and a number of other options provide the same and greater functionality than Microsoft?s stolen Active Directory approach. Open Source does also believe in administrators having some knowledge of technology not simply clicking on pretty icons. ?Technical support may not be provided by the vendor,? The FOSS community is far more supportive and helpful than anything you?ll find in the Proprietary software world. If your too lazy to take the time to learn yourself, you can always hire a service provider for support (Ie. Your CIO needs someone to blame since they don?t have the proprietary developers take the fall) Open Source competes on the basis of product quality and features (the Darwinism of FOSS projects) where business derive profit from support and services not patent litigation and software taxes. Open Source is more cost effective, more secure, more resource efficient and more customizable to provide just what you need not what you don?t. I am so very tired of hearing from people who continue to believe the marketing hype out of Redmond such as the Microsoft sponsored ?know the FUD? campaign. Do more than an hour of research before you try and pass off this kind of crap on knowledgably techs and stop feeding the average computer users FUD so they feel better about Microsoft?s lock-in strategies.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Scalability is a design feature not a development paradigm. If you don't design for scalability you won't get it, whether the source is available for inspection, a collaborative development has naff all to do with it. MySQL is not as scalable as PostGreSQL for instance. PS power users (and developers) have far more trouble switching operating systems than your average appliance user.

ayakus
ayakus

First of all this story has nothing to do with the scalability of Open Source. You jump from SMB to Enterprise just to confuse the issue and spread Fear Uncertainty & Doubt. Learning Curve? If you can use Word you can use Open Office. Administrative Overhead? Much less with Open Source not chasing security patches and viruses all day. Are you for real? "writing their own device drivers" FUD Technical support may not be provided by the vendor, or may cost extra. See below. Windows Server 2003 R2 Enterprise Edition $3,999 Windows Server 2003, Client Access License 20-pack $799 (If we are talking Enterprise add a multiplier which throws this way out there) Guess what? You still don't have support. Redhat - a per-system annual support subscription for Enterprise Linux AS costs $1,499 (standard) to $2,499 (premium). Why not take your own advice and compare apples to apples. Deb Shinder MVP (Most Valuable Pawn).

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

but can anyone point me to a decent site on open ldap? I want to set up a test network to present to my boss. Our company uses ldap specificly to authenticate e-mail (exchange). All our production is on a Unix server, 2 Sun servers, and mac workstations. So, basicly, all I need to replace is AD. And exchange, but mail programs I have been able to find info about. Anyone? LDAP in a linux/unix environment?

roaming
roaming

We have proprietary software and the only help we can get with out paying extra is trawling through the knowledge base which is the same as searching the Internet for OSS support. And we often have to search the Internet for help with the proprietary software too. And the company can disappear leaving you high and dry.

Jaqui
Jaqui

Actually Tony, the newer versions of MySQL are as scalable, in a fashion. they have both an Enterprise server as well as clustering specifically to address the scalability. with the clustering, you also gain in reliability as well as avoid performance hits. Chapter 15 of the MySQL documents details setting up a clustered MySQL system: http://dev.mysql.com/doc/refman/4.1/en/mysql-cluster.html the online docs are one version behind the current release, but they are still a good reference for learning the new feature sets.

troub
troub

here, here! I've been working in the open source arena for the past six years. There are a small percentage of high quality open source project which will become the defacto standard for their application segments. My suggestion for Deb Shinder is to go download some high quality open source software herself. I wonder if she downloaded OpenOffice or FireFox before writing this. This is plain rhetoric and worthless.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I shall have a peruse, don't have much need of it in my current job, but you never know.

Jaqui
Jaqui

I see MySQL as a good dbe for websites like TR more than for enterprise usage still, but they do continually suprise me with improvements that do expand on it's capabilities. I check their site a couple of times a year now to see what's new, more than enough to keep current with stable features. :) [ using a beta feature in production is just insane, but testing a beta feature against production code can help improve it ]