Open source business software
Open source software has a lot to offer to businesses. To begin with, it is generally cheap. Most solutions are available to download and run for free, or under a low-cost commercial licence. As well as this, open source software is often more agile and customisable to your needs. In many cases, it is considered more reliable and more secure than the proprietary software.
From accounting packages to full enterprise solutions, it is nowadays entirely possible to run your business safely and efficiently on open source software alone. This can potentially save your business a lot of money.
This guide describes what open source is, how it works and what advantages and disadvantages it can bring to your business. It gives examples of popular open source products and types and information on common open source licensing and legal issues.
Finally, since tech support isn't usually bundled with free software, this guide also explains where to find support for open source software.
What is open source software?
Open source software refers to a computer program or an application in which the source code is open and available to the public:
- for use, modification or redistribution
- under an open source licence
- usually free of charge
The source code is a part of the software that determines how the program works.
In proprietary software, usually bought off-the-shelf, the source code remains hidden. It belongs to the company that developed the software and is privately owned and controlled.
You can license the proprietary software for use, but you won't be able to access, modify or distribute its underlying source code. It is considered the company's intellectual property. Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop are examples of proprietary software.
Open source software
In contrast to the proprietary software, the creators of open source programs make their source code available to anyone who wants to view, copy, alter or share the code. Find examples of popular open source products and types.
You can download and install open source software onto your computer in the same way you would install proprietary software.
Do I need a licence for open source software?
While most open source programs are free to download, you may need to license some of them to run them on your machines.
Open source licences are different from proprietary software licences. Most will generally allow you to:
- modify the software to suit your needs
- use portions of the code and apply them to other programs
- distribute and duplicate copies freely
Different licences may have different conditions attached. To find out more, see open source licensing and legal issues.
Why choose open source software for business?
The premise for open source is one of transparency, open exchange and cooperation. When programmers can openly read, redistribute and modify the source code for a piece of software, the view is that it will generally evolve into an improved, more reliable product. Read more about the advantages of open source software.
Advantages of open source software
Many business owners use open source software because it has little or no up-front cost. This is clearly a huge benefit, especially to new businesses, but it is not the only one.
There are many other compelling reasons why businesses should use open source software as an alternative to commercial, proprietary software.
Business advantages of open source software
Open source applications are continually evolving in real time as developers fix, enhance and modify the source code. This often delivers:
1. Better security - Many developers working on the source code means that they are likely to spot security problems quickly. Anyone can fix bugs or upgrade the code, without relying on a proprietary vendor.
2. Better quality - Similarly, with more developers poring over the code, open source is typically considered to have fewer flaws and better quality than the standard, commercially developed software.
3. More control - Many people prefer open source because they have more control over the code or the ways they can use it. Proprietary software is fully controlled by its developers. In contrast, all those who use it control open source software. This makes it easy to customise and tailor the product for your exact needs and purpose.
4. No vendor dependence - With open source, you are not locked into a relationship with a particular software company. As the code is out in the open, you are free to take your business elsewhere to find the support you need, when you need it.
5. Easier licence management - If you're using proprietary software, you must make sure that all your servers, desktops or laptops have the right type and number of commercial licences. With open source licences, you can generally use the software as many times, in as many places, as you wish. Depending on the licence type, different conditions may apply - read about open source licensing and legal issues.
Are there any downsides to open source?
Despite the many benefits of open source, in some cases using 'off-the-shelf' products may be a wiser business choice. See more on the disadvantages of open source software.
Disadvantages of open source software
Open source software may benefit many businesses. However, it can also pose several significant challenges - from unexpected costs and steep learning curve to complex compatibility issues.
The main disadvantages of open source software relate to:
1. The difficulty of use - Some open source applications may be tricky to set up and use. Others may lack user-friendly interfaces or features that your staff may be familiar with. This can affect productivity and prevent your staff from adopting or using programs with ease.
2. Compatibility issues - Many types of proprietary hardware need specialised drivers to run open source programs, which are often only available from the equipment manufacturer. This can potentially add to the cost of your project. Even if an open source driver exists, it may not work with your software as well as the proprietary driver.
3. Liabilities and warranties - With proprietary software, the developer usually provides indemnification and warranty as part of a standard licence agreement. This is because they fully control and copyright the product and its underlying code. Open source software licences typically contain only limited warranty and no liability or infringement indemnity protection.
4. Hidden costs - Software that is free up-front but later costs money to run can be a major burden, especially if you haven't considered hidden costs from the outset.
Open source software costs
When you're considering using free or open source software, it is important to think through the potential costs involved in:
- Setting up - eg you may need new hardware to use the software.
- Installation - eg you may need to pay someone to install and configure the system for you.
- Training - eg your staff may not be familiar with some or all of the features of the software and may need some support and training.
- Importing data - eg if you are replacing an existing system, you will likely have to migrate, extract or reload your data.
- Integrating with existing systems - eg your payroll software, customer databases, etc.
- Customising the software - eg you may need to modify some or all of it to meet your specific needs. This will likely require time and effort.
- Maintenance - costs may accrue with the need to update the software, apply patches, test and deploy new versions.
- Support - most free software comes without a support package. You will likely need to find and pay for third-party support services.
See how to find support for open source software.
Costs considerations are just as true for proprietary software as they are for open source. You should take time to assess the total cost of ownership for any software you intend to use.
It is also very important to weigh up any disadvantages against the possible advantages of open source software.
Remember that open source doesn't have to be all or nothing. There is no reason why you couldn't run a proprietary operating system in your business and use open source software alongside it. Find examples of popular open source products and types.
Examples of popular open source products and types
Whatever software your business needs - eg for word processing, accounting or running a website - it is easy to find an open source version. Many websites such as SourceForge host open source projects and are good places to look for new software.
Types of open source software
Some popular open source software for business include:
Open source office software
- Abiword - word processing tool
- Open Office.org - business productivity suite
- Libre Office - business productivity suite
- CiviCRM - customer relationship management
- vTiger CRM Open Source - customer relationship management
- MySQL - database
- Ingres - database
Open source accounting software
- GNU cash - small business accounting and personal finance software
- SQL Ledger - web-based enterprise resource planning system
- Front Accounting - accounting and enterprise resource planning software
- Compiere - accounting, CRM and ERP
Open source operating systems
- GNU/Linux (various versions or distributions include Debian, Fedora, Gentoo, Ubuntu and Red Hat) - operating system
- FreeBSD - operating system
- Android - mobile phone platform
Open source website software
- Wordpress - blog hosting platform
- Alfresco Community Editions - enterprise content management system
- Joomla - enterprise content management system
- Drupal - enterprise content management system
- Magento - ecommerce website platform
- PrestaShop - ecommerce website platform
- Apache - web server software
- NginX - web server software
- PHP - web application scripting engine
Open source browsers and communication applications
- Juice Receiver - podcasting
- Mozilla Firefox - web browser
- Mozilla Thunderbird - email client
- Pidgin - instant messaging
- Zimbra - email and collaboration server
- FileZilla - FTP client
- MediaWiki - information sharing platform
Open source IT security
- Smoothwall - firewall and security tools
- Wireshark (originally named Ethereal) - security application
- KeePass - password management
- Clam AV - antivirus software
- GIMP - image processing/graphics editing
- VLC - multimedia file playback
- Ogg - open video and audio codecs
- Blender - animation and video editor
Open source development tools
- Ruby on Rails - rapid web application development
- Eclipse - integrated development environment
Before downloading and installing open source software, you should carry out the same due diligence as you would for proprietary applications.
Tips for selecting open source business software
When choosing open source software for business, you should first research and evaluate your options. Many applications are available and most are free to download, so you should be able to try and test different solutions relatively easily.
How to evaluate open source software
When evaluating your options, make sure that you assess:
- all the available features of the software
- the stability of the product
- its compatibility with your existing systems and equipment
It's also worth checking that:
- regular and timely security updates or patches are available for the software
- there is enough documentation to support installation, setup and software troubleshooting
Other factors to consider to minimise risks when using open source software
You may also want to:
- check if the software has its own website where you can learn more about its uses
- learn about the team behind the application, and their plans for its future
- seek recommendations from other businesses or through the community support group (if there is one)
- find out if there is an IT support company with specialist knowledge of the software
- bring in a consultant to help you determine if the software will suit your needs
- understand the licence in use - read more about open source licensing and legal issues
- contact your local university to see if they can offer any advice - many use open source software and some may even have a commercial open source operation
Most importantly, check on the internet for reviews to get an idea of what other people think about the software. Visit any relevant online support forums to find out about any issues you may come across.
Most of these tips apply to evaluating any software - be it open source or a proprietary solution. For more best practice, see how to choose an IT supplier for your business.
Open source licensing and legal issues
Open source licences can be a source of some confusion. Not all open source software is distributed under the same type of licensing agreement.
Common types of open source licences
Open source licences give you free access to the source code of an application, and the ability to edit, modify and share this code without seeking special permission. There are many different licences available. They can vary considerably in their legal requirements.
Most common licences are:
1. GNU General Public Licence (GPL) - The GPL grants and guarantees a wide range of rights to developers and allows users to legally copy, distribute and modify the software in any way they wish to, under certain conditions. For example, the GPL includes a restriction that any copies or derivative work must be royalty-free and imposes certain requirements for redistribution. Find out about the GNU GPL.
2. Lesser GPL Licence (LGPL) - The LGPL grants fewer rights to a work than the standard GPL. It also lets you mix elements of open source software with new proprietary applications, without making the whole application publicly available. Read more about the LGPL.
3. Berkeley Standard Distribution Licence (BSD) - BSD licences are permissive, free software licences with even fewer restrictions on distribution compared to other open source licences such as the GPL and the LGPL. However, BSD includes a template copyright notice and disclaimer which must be displayed at all times when using the software. The two variants of BSD licence are the 'simplified' or 'free BSD licence' and the 'modified' or '3-clause BSD licence'.
4. Dual licences - If you're planning on building open source tools into software and selling it, it's worth looking for software that comes with dual licences - an open source version and a paid-for version that lets you keep any changes you make. The commercial licence releases businesses from the requirement to make changes to the software open source.
Difference between copyleft and copyright licensing
Proprietary software developers use copyright to take away the users' freedom to reproduce, modify or distribute copies of their work.
In contrast, copyleft aims to give users the freedom to use, change and redistribute the software as they wish. It also requires that all modified and extended versions of the material remain freely available as well.
Open source software licences can be either copyleft or non-copyleft. The GLP is considered the most popular copyleft licence, while the BSD is an example of a copyrighted licence.
Complying with the terms of the licence
It's important to ensure that you comply with the licence associated with the software you're using - especially if you're making your own changes to the software.
The Free Software Foundation works to protect the rights of free software users and developers, can investigate businesses that breach licence terms.
Find support for open source software
When you buy commercial software, it usually comes bundled with a certain level of support from the software company. Either the license fee covers it, or you may have to pay extra for it.
With open source software, this isn't the case. The support is not packaged with the software itself. Instead, it is often available from:
- third-party providers
- specialist software developers
- paid IT consultants
- open source project sponsors
- community resources
If you are using open source solutions in your business, it is important to know where and how to get the right support.
Free open source support
In many cases, a self-service approach using online community resources and search engines works well. With a bit of effort, you can discover volunteers to answer your questions or find forums dedicated to small businesses where you can access documentation, live support chats, Q&As, etc free of charge.
You can also find well-known IT providers like Microsoft, Oracle, IBM and HP offering free open source support, and tools for integrating open source with their own proprietary solutions.
Paid open source support
Many of the larger open source business applications come with the option of paid commercial support. This can be as part of a support contract or an optional extra, or you can even pay-as-you-go for a specialist consultancy.
If you are going to appoint an IT consultant - for implementation, training or ongoing support - look for someone with experience of the specific software package you plan to use. This shouldn't prove too difficult if the package is well known and used. However, if you have chosen a less common application, finding an IT specialist with the right experience can be difficult and costly.
If you use other types of paid software, your usual IT support or supplier may well be able to help you. See how to choose an IT supplier for your business.
Open source training
When using new and unfamiliar software, you should carefully consider your training and support needs. Ask yourself:
- what level of training your employees need to help them use the software
- who will carry out this training
- what will they charge
It's often worth investing in a 'train the trainer' approach with open source tools, building your own internal training skills to keep total costs to a minimum. Some businesses develop their own in-house support and training for open source software because this can be less costly in the long term.