This article is from the “All about Open Source - An Introduction to Open Source Software for Government IT” paper (Version 1.0).
Pros and cons of Open Source Solutions
In recent years the software and wider IT marketplace has developed to make open source products more competitive and easier to include in enterprise business solutions. However the suitability of open source is best determined on a case-by-case basis and requires a detailed and well-informed evaluation. A fair assessment needs to be made as to which solution offers the best value for the taxpayer, it is important to bear in mind that there will be pros and cons for any solution.
Pros of Open Source may include:
- The acquisition cost, development and implementation contract costs are likely to be lower than for proprietary software. It is less likely that there will be contractually-bound upgrade costs. However, the total cost of ownership over the lifetime of usage must be taken into account
- Data transferability; with open source code and a move towards open data formats, there are greater opportunities to share data across interoperable platforms
- Increased opportunities for re use. Because open source is free from per user or per instance costs and there is a guaranteed freedom to use in any way, reuse is enabled.
- Paying once for development (if at all) and reuse across government where appropriate, therefore offering cost effectiveness.
- By virtue of their collaborative design, many user-facing open source products are intuitive for the user
- Potential for fast cycle time of releases and bug fixes; (dependent on whether or not there are people, resources and interest to develop the releases and bug fixes
- Opportunities for customisation and community innovation within government and the wider public sector, and also citizens, SMEs.
- Open source licences do not limit or restrict who can use the software, the type of user, or the areas of business in which the software can be used. Therefore, OSS provides a licensing model that enables rapid provisioning of both known and unanticipated users and in new use cases.
- Open Source solutions are scalable in both directions – upwards and downwards with a reduction in the risk of longer term financial implications. For example, procurers wont have to pay a licence fee on a “per user” or “per box” basis so they are not left with redundant licences
- Open source software can be operated and maintained by multiple suppliers encouraging competition and providing an opportunity for SMEs to compete in the government market; which lead to code sharing cultures, better citizen accessibility, and greater control over IT projects. Potential to reduce reliance on particular software developers or suppliers which could encourage competition and reduce commercial barriers to entry and exit for government.
- Open source software is particularly suitable for rapid prototyping and experimentation, where the ability to “test drive” the software with minimal costs and administrative delays can be important. Proprietary software suppliers may also provide the same through a ‘proof of concept’ phase at minimal or no cost.
Cons of Open Source may include:
- If the source code is made available to the wider community, it is also vulnerable to threats from the hacker community. This may be mitigated by separating the development code from the version used in the final solution and/or using a test environment for updates before implementation
- Support and maintenance costs may outweigh those of the proprietary package and include ‘hidden’ commitments. A full assessment of the total cost of ownership along with the proposed supplier will help to mitigate this risk
- Intellectual property rights – as code is modified and adapted by departments, there may be legal risks around whether the code retains its open source status and who owns the intellectual property rights of the modified code; and
- Those considering using and developing open source ‘in-house’ must ensure that they have the right level of expertise to manage it effectively.
- Large SIs may be reluctant to propose open source solutions which may generate less revenue and not be aligned with their product or skill set
- Open source solutions may require additional development to enable integration with an existing proprietary environment. Some open source solutions may never work well with established proprietary products
- Staff are traditionally trained (and practised) in using proprietary software programs, the introduction of new programs/software may require staff retraining in order to enable them to use open source solutions.