Do Small Businesses Fear Open Source? - InformationWeek

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8/25/2006
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Do Small Businesses Fear Open Source?

Open-source software is a viable option for emerging enterprises, but a majority just don't trust it. Are these fears unfounded?

Are you the open source type? It's an essential question for emerging enterprises as they build out their IT infrastructure--the wrong choice may bring your business to a standstill.

It's also a difficult question. Open source software is a viable alternative to a broad range of commercial products, from operating systems to databases to Web servers to network monitoring. You can even deploy open source routers. Many emerging enterprises run business-critical applications with open source software and wouldn't have it any other way.

But fully half of small and medium-sized businesses say they use little to no open source software, according to a survey conducted by InformationWeek and sister publication Network Computing of 441 companies with 100 to 5,000 employees. An additional 20% say they use it only for applications primarily used by IT. This is evidence of a profound wariness of products that don't come with the assurances (warranted or not) of commercial software: stability, ease of use, on-demand technical support, and accountability.

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A key issue for emerging enterprises is the depth and quality of support available to deploy and troubleshoot open source software. Many packages lack the support and accountability that comes with writing a check to a commercial vendor.

"There are expectations of things just working, but if a bug emerges or something fails, there's not the same support and documentation" for open source software, says Sam Newnam, owner of SystemSam Technologies, a service provider and technology consultant for small businesses. "You have to dig through code and find the holes."

Who You Gonna Call?

It's this scenario that keeps many emerging enterprises away from open source. "Open source support often lacks the availability and quality more typical of commercial software support," says Dave Conde, senior manager of IT infrastructure at Genitope, a biotechnology company with a cancer drug in late-stage human trials. The company has 190 employees and a nine-person IT department.

Conde isn't opposed to open source software; Genitope's IT group uses Nagios for network monitoring and would like to evaluate other open source software. Conde also encourages employees to make Firefox their primary browser. However, he's more comfortable with key business functions riding on commercial software. "You know who to call to get a problem solved," he says.

Chart: Open Source Attitude -- How does your company use open source technology?Of course, that's not the case with all open source software. Red Hat has made a successful business of selling Red Hat Enterprise Linux with support contracts so you can get someone on the phone when there's a problem. Options range from weekdays only to 24-by-7 access to a support person. IBM and Hewlett-Packard also offer 24-by-7 support for both Red Hat and SUSE Linux, and Novell offers support for SUSE. Vyatta, a new company that offers open source routing software and plans to sell routing appliances based on XORP, the open source routing stack, also will follow the Red Hat model of charging for support.

But not all open source software boasts this level of assistance, and there's a big difference between having an 800 number to call and posting a question on a community site and hoping for a response. Of course, if you're using software with an active community there's a chance you may get a useful response faster than from the 800 number, but are you willing to bet your business on it?

Some companies are. "At some point it's conceivable that we may need to solve a problem and, because there's no vendor or owner of the product, we can't really go and hold them responsible," says Adam D'Amico, IT operations manager at Third Screen Media, a 50-person company that creates software to enable advertising on mobile devices. His key applications run on the Red Hat Enterprise Linux operating system. However, he notes that because of the heterogenity of the open source ecosystem, he can swap out problematic software without significant disruption, which may not be the case with a commercial product.

Inexpensive software has particular appeal for smaller companies, especially those just getting on their feet. Some 46% of respondents to the InformationWeek/Network Computing survey say "low or no cost" is the most important reason for deploying open source software. But a true assessment of cost must include implementation, training, and long-term maintenance over the software's life.

While open source software often has a low (or no) price tag, and you can run it on inexpensive hardware, that's only part of the savings. Companies also can cut costs by avoiding software that requires expensive skill sets. Third Screen Media purchased a competitor whose application runs on Solaris and Oracle. D'Amico says. "It requires so much in terms of cost to maintain for licensing and expertise, especially with Oracle," he says. The company continues to support this application, but it's putting more resources into another business application that uses MySQL, an open source database.

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