IT Brief New Zealand - Technology news for CIOs & IT decision-makers
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Mon, 1st Feb 2010
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Freedom brings flexibility to software. There was a time when all software was open source. Of course, nobody used the terms ‘free software' or ‘open source' – it would have been like saying ‘free air' or ‘open newspapers'.

The idea of making the source code of software a secret came along later. After all, programmers said, if the software doesn't do exactly what I want, I can just tweak it until it does.

This was the environment the internet was born into. The internet is nothing more than a collection of freely-available standards, and examples of software which implement those standards.

Those standards embody some amazing engineering: the net has scaled from a few nodes at US universities to billions of connected computers. Along the way it's enabled whole new ways of doing business, not to mention swept away the mess of networking protocols that we had to contend with in the 1980s.

Almost all the software that the internet is built from is free or open source. Examples are the Apache web server that powers over half the websites in the world, the Bind name server which resolves domain names into IP addresses, and the Linux operating system which drives most of the servers on the planet.

Open source and free software are related but different concepts. Neither of them has to be free of cost, although in practice they often are. Open source means just that – you can get a copy of the source code. That's important because it lets lots of people look at the code, fix bugs, make suggestions, or figure out how to apply it to new situations. The strength of open source is not only that you can see the source code but that anyone can see it, and some of them will have the time and the skills to improve it.

Free software is software released under a licence that guarantees you certain freedoms. The most common free software licence is the General Public Licence or GPL. This is the licence used by Firefox, OpenOffice and Linux.

Free software gives you the freedom to use the software for whatever you want – no more ‘per seat' costs or client access licences. It guarantees you access to the source code, and it gives you the right to change the software to suit your needs.

The only obligation it places on you is, if you decide to distribute your changed software, you have to do so under the same conditions. Unless you are in the business of distributing software this will have no impact on you. These conditions make free and open source software highly flexible. Do you love a publishing program but can't get it to integrate with your web CMS? If one or both are open source, you can get a developer to alter it to suit.

Perhaps you're looking for support for some piece of free software? There are dozens of support forums on the web full of people who have solved the problem already. Many companies in New Zealand specialise in installing and supporting free and open source software. They can tailor free or open source software to meet your exact needs, and you don't end up paying ongoing software licence fees. And, because you have the source code, you can get anyone to support it, as you aren't locked in to one support company.

That tends to concentrate the minds of the support companies because they know they have to work hard to keep you. It's a good deal all round.

As well as running the entire internet, free and open source software powers a range of enterprises from the mighty Google to one-person businesses. The free web content management system Drupal is being used by corporates and governments worldwide, including President Obama's White House site.

Many businesses have Linux in the data center, and increasingly it's appearing on desktops, such as in the French Police force, the German Foreign Ministry, and the New Zealand Electoral Enrolment Centre.

Next time you have a software choice to make, you may need to justify why you would use a commercial package. There might not be an open source or free alternative, although this is getting less and less common. Or you might find that you are tied into a contract with an existing software provider, and you'd want to think about the implications of that. But if free or open source solutions are available to you, why not take advantage of their flexibility and zero licensing costs?

You may find that your CEO would like the answer to that question as well.