Open Source 101 - Understanding Your Software Options

As a small to mid-sized business owner, you've likely purchased commercial software products for years to meet your business needs. You've paid annual licensing fees, dealt with less-than-helpful 800 numbers for tech support and rationalized the extra cost of upgrading to the latest and greatest versions.

You've probably thought once or twice about open source software, but you may not have investigated its uses for your business because you’re not sure why or how to implement it or you worry about costs and functionality. This article aims to help you out of your software rut by sharing the characteristics and benefits of open source, describing open source alternatives to popular software packages and outlining some key reasons for open source migration.


First, it’s important to understand the characteristics of open source software, most notably, what makes it “open.” Three important factors distinguish open source from proprietary software:

  • Source code availability – proprietary software, the kind you purchase from a corporation and license year after year, is closed source code, the user can't see it, let alone change it. In contrast, open source software lets users access and modify the source code, enabling enhanced control. With open source software, once you own it you really own it; you’re not just paying to use it.
  • Always open, not always free – a common misconception of open source is that it’s synonymous with free software. Open source is “free,” insomuch as users and developers have the liberty to access, modify and distribute it, but open source is not always “free” where dollars are concerned. It’s true that many open source products are free to use (you may have a Mozilla Firefox web browser, for example), but some do have a cost associated. Note that free software does not equate with open source software. One may get freeware or Shareware but not have access to the source code. The matrix below illustrates these distinctions.


Open Source

Closed Source


Firefox Browser

Ad Aware for windows


Enterprise Edition of SugarCRM

MS. Office

  • The culture of development – open source software is usually developed in a collaborative environment. Developers create or modify code and disseminate it, under very liberal license (GPL). This positively impacts technology in the long-term, shifting the focus of development from generating revenue to sharing knowledge. It also increases the timeliness of bug reports and bug fixes.

When implementing proprietary open source solutions, you’ll incur some of the same costs of commercial products –hardware, software licensing, networking, implementation, professional services (e.g. Data porting or converting) and support – but you will not pay annual licensing fees. Hence, the overall cost of open source is often substantially less than a commercial package.

Because open source grants access to its source code, users have far greater control over its features and functions than those of commercial packages. You can customize the software, adding, integrating or modifying features to best meet the individualized needs of your business. As an added measure of control, open source software is vendor-independent, giving you freedom to choose the right products and service providers instead of relying on slim “certified partner” pickings.

In addition to cost and control factors, it’s important to recognize the many diverse uses of open source. If you’re worried you won’t find an open source product similar to the commercial product you currently use or are considering, rest assured there is an open source equivalent to meet every business need. The chart below illustrates the many levels of a typical business’s IT infrastructure, showcasing one or more open source products for each:


As with many business decisions, time and circumstance are factors you should weigh when planning your open source migration. If you’re currently experiencing any of the following, it may be time to migrate:

  • It’s time to upgrade your current commercial software to a new version. If you don’t, you risk losing vendor support.
  • Your business grew and the number of users increased calling for additional per seat license fees
  • It’s time to renew your license and pay all those pesky fees (again).
  • Your current system fails, times out or otherwise frustrates your staff and you’re spending additional time and money to troubleshoot.
  • You purchased a package that is rarely used and does not deliver optimal return on investment.
  • The vendor you depend on for support has moved, merged or been acquired and you’re uncertain about the future of your service.

Nowadays, your have software options that were not available in the past. As with all business decisions, when it comes to open source migration the key to making the right choice is being informed and understanding your options.


Also published in the Detroiter Online

Elizabeth Ziph is president and CEO of the Linux Box Corporation, an ISO 9001:2008 certified custom software development practice based in Ann Arbor, Mich. that specializes in open source technology and the Linux platform. She holds an MBA from New York Institute of Technology and a bachelor's degree in computer science from The City University of New York.