What is open source software, and is it better than “closed” alternatives?

Open source software simply means that the creator or developer of the software has decided to publish the software with an open source license, which in turn means that the software and other products can be modified and shared by anyone — so long as defined terms and conditions are adhered to.

As little as a few years ago, open source software (OSS) was largely dismissed as being completely inferior to proprietary software. But in the last several years, that has changed completely today to the point that 65% of companies today are using open source software in at least some way, and furthermore, four out of every five websites are powered by open source web servers.

Some common examples of software you may not know are open source, including the Linux operating system, Wikipedia, Firefox, and even the mobile operating system Android.

Using open source software, in addition to being extremely cost-effective, provides some significant advantages over paid alternatives. Let’s have a look.

1. OSS is More Cost Effective 

Using open source solutions helps enable organizations to be more agile in their operations due to the low investment required to use open source software. Since most open source solutions don’t cost anything, the only real cost is training yourself or your employees/coworkers to use the software.

That means that switching software will also be cheaper for businesses using open source, as the overhead needed to do so is small. So, if you need to start small, but still have a solution that works at scale, open source may be the right choice for you.

2. More Frequent Performance Upgrades 

Often, open source software has an absolute advantage over paid alternatives concerning upgrades. This is because in open source projects, lots of people contribute and thus there are lots of eyes on the project looking for and fixing bugs or performing upgrades.

Simply put, you can expect open source software to be updated more often than paid software, and it can truly lead to more robust and frequently updated solutions.

You can also automate performance upgrades for your open source solutions by using tools such as WhiteSource, which will identify all open source components in your computer that can be upgraded and notify you accordingly. This comes in handy if you’re using an OSS solution as part of your smart home setup.

Case in point, many of the best home security systems in use today run on the LinuxMCE operating system as a basis for their software. With a thriving development community and almost-daily upgrades, it’s a smart choice to keep you and your family safe.

3. Absolute Freedom 

Often times when someone uses software, they become locked in with the particular vendor of technology. However, businesses and individuals who use open source often don’t have this issue.

One, because open source users aren’t paying for the product, they are free to change what solution they are using at any time. And secondly, any individual using an open source solution can modify it to fix their exact needs if they should change.

4. Strong Communities of Supporters 

With software that has been open sourced, you often see an active community of supporters and contributors. This means that asking questions of the community will be easy, and you often get the help you need through other users of the software.

When you are using a paid solution, you are often left with a customer service team which typically is only a fraction of the size when compared to almost any community surrounding open source software.

There are a handful of different types of so-called ‘open source communities’ as well. One example is simply called a Developer Community, which means that the software was initiated by either a person or an organization. User Communities are much the same as Developer Communities, except the user organizations of the software also own the copyright.

Yet another type of open source community is known as an Open Source Competence Center, which are ‘product neutral’ and have a primary goal of facilitating open source software for private companies and public institutions alike.

5. The Open Source Mindset 

With open source software, often the creators and community take on the “open source mindset.” Meaning, all aspects of the development are collaborative and community/user oriented. This is different than the attitude you see with corporations selling software, who are more often concerned with the bottom line.

In addition, lots of open source developers have a “continuous improvement attitude” sometimes referred to by the Japanese phrase “kaizen,” meaning you can expect an open source solution to get better and better over time as standards change or are updated.

I’m not quite sure you can say that about most paid software solutions, which on average take longer to catch up to open source regarding having modern features.

6. Transparency 

With paid software products, you or your team rarely get a look under the “hood” so to speak. However, with open source software, you not only get to see the raw code, but you can also find community discussion about how the code works.

So, if you ever need to make a change to open source software, it will be simple relative to paid or licensed software. For paid software, proprietary code is produced in a way which guarantees nobody knows how it works, which can be a huge downside if you’re running a business that relies on the software for day-to-day operations.

Depending on how large a company is that sells paid software, there might be an attitude that if they don’t have or eliminate a feature you need, you’ll need to find another vendor. However, with open source software, you can include any additional feature yourself, or pay a developer to include it for you.

7. Lower Administrative Costs 

Many businesses who purchase software require the IT staff to maintain, catalog and keep their software licenses updated. Also, along with paid software licenses come a host of issues like your usage being monitored or tracked by the provider, usage limits, compliance issues, and many more things.

However, with open source software, you don’t have to worry about any of those problems. When using open source, you are free to use the software as much as needed with no usage limits, and with no “big brother” collecting and storing your data.

This frees up IT and other administrative staff to work on other tasks rather than silly things that waste time like license and usage management. For example, most popular web hosting providers offer users the ability to use an open source control panel, such as CentOS or ISPconfig, which are great open-source alternatives to the paid ones. All in all, open source solutions simply tend to be more cost-effective than their proprietary counterparts.

8. Top Notch Security 

In software, there is a term “Linus’s Law.” This term was created based on a quote from the open source software creator of Linux, Linus Torvalds. He was quoted as saying “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”

His quote sheds light on the fact that the more people who see and test a piece of software, the more likely that security flaws will be found and fixed. With traditional paid software companies, the strategy has been referred to as “security through obscurity,” meaning that since with paid software the code is not openly available they believe it to be secure.

However, based on the number of hacks in the news occurring to paid software, it is abundantly clear that the paid software industry model of security doesn’t work. However, with open source, when bugs are found they are often fixed immediately by the community.

As a contrast, often times security flaws and bugs found in paid software aren’t disclosed for fear that the vendors’ reputation may be hurt.

Do share your feedback in the comments section.

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Gary Stevens

Gary Stevens is a freelance technology writer and full stack JavaScript developer. He’s a full time blockchain geek and a volunteer working for the Ethereum foundation as well as an active Github contributor.
Gary Stevens