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The advantages of open-source software

open source
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Imilian)

Open-source software (OSS) has been steadily growing in popularity over the years, transforming from the favored tool of programmers to the default choice for enterprise IT departments in large organizations the world over. Indeed, open source is increasingly displacing proprietary technology, with Red Hat’s 2020 The State of Enterprise Open Source report finding that 95 percent of its IT leader respondents say that open source is strategically important and that they expect the use of enterprise open source at their organization to increase to 44 percent in just two years.

Outside of enterprises, open source can be found everywhere. It’s in our home office tools and in over 70 percent of the world’s mobile phones. It’s even being using to help fight plastic pollution. As organizations and individuals take advantage of its many benefits, there’s no denying that OSS is here to stay with.

The importance of open-source software

When most users think of OSS, thoughts of free software immediately come to mind. Whilst this certainly can be the case, OSS isn’t always free-of-charge. First and foremost, ‘open source’ means that the source code is freely available to anyone who wishes to view, copy, redistribute, and even make changes to the software, for any purpose. In addition, the ‘copyleft’ rule applies to many open-source solutions and prescribes that new versions and products based on free software must be published under the same license as the original version. This means that their source code must also be freely available, and can be copied, used and modified.

Free accessibility and malleability are the main reasons why OSS is of immense importance to the software landscape. Almost all applications known today contain open-source components, and the huge source code pool has allowed even non-software organizations of all sizes and industries to produce software. In return, many of them also contribute to open-source projects, shared via platforms such as GitHub. This collaboration in turn helps perpetuate the creation and availability of OSS.

The biggest advantages of open-source software

According to Red Hat’s report, security (52 percent) and cloud management tools (51 percent) come out on top as the biggest use cases for enterprise open source, very fitting for the world of virtual work, enabling organizations to keep business running no matter where people are working and keep them safe in the process. OSS has many other advantages besides:

Transparency: With OSS, the source code is open and available to anyone, making it possible to understand exactly how the software works and what it does. Organizations can be sure that no undesired, hidden functions are built in or that the software secretly taps data. In addition, the open-source code makes it possible for anyone to adapt programs flexibly to their own needs.

Availability: Organizations can use OSS for as long as they like and in the form of their choosing. Once the source code has been published on GitHub, for example, it remains freely available there indefinitely. Even if the licensing terms change in the future, the last published version is still available as OSS. This makes companies independent of individual manufacturers, particularly pertinent in an era where mistrust surrounds big tech companies.

Sustainability: Because OSS is continuously passed on, it exists independently of a single manufacturer and is always developing, growing and improving. OSS promotes knowledge and education and is often used at universities where students can experiment with applications without restrictions – an invaluable form of training ahead of joining the workforce.

Security: While this is cited as a frequent concern, OSS is actually extremely secure. Thanks to the huge number of independent developers that contribute to OSS projects, even more so than proprietary software, there is always someone keeping an eye out for suspicious behavior.

Transparency plays a decisive role here as it not only ensures that no backdoors are lurking but also massively minimizes the risk that someone can insert malicious code into the software. In addition, updates and patches are usually available for OSS from the community relatively promptly after a problem has been discovered, meaning vulnerabilities can be closed quickly. Propriety software, on the other hand, requires the provider to be notified and a solution is often slow in appearing.

The risks of using free OSS

Whilst free OSS is available and comes with numerous advantages, organizations should first take into consideration the risks of implementation. Firstly, there is no support – other than from the OSS community – and no warranty available. There are no SLAs that guarantee defined services and IT administrators must keep a close eye on activities in the OSS community in order to know when to download, test and implement important updates and patches. All these processes require enormous effort and expert knowledge, but in many IT departments, especially in smaller organizations, this manpower and expertise is not available.

Instead, and to ensure that the software runs securely and stably, organizations can turn to commercial open-source variants. These products are optimized for use in a corporate environment – they are easy to install, run smoothly and customers receive regular updates, patches, and support. Red Hat, for example, has implemented this business model very successful with its Red Hat Enterprise Linux, the Java Development Kit Red Hat OpenJDK, and the Kubernetes distribution Red Hat OpenShift, making it a leader in the OSS sphere. There are many other solutions out there to fit any number of requirements.

Give and take

Opting for commercial OSS also contributes to the preservation of free software, ensuring that the sharing economy principle of the open-source concept stays alive. By giving something back as well as taking – whether financially or by getting involved in the community through code sharing – organizations can ensure that OSS is available to anyone, at any time.

Open-source software offers numerous advantages over proprietary software. Its availability and sustainability make it an invaluable tool for anyone, from students to enterprises, and its transparency offers increased security. Risks remain, but for those organizations without inhouse IT expertise, commercial open-source variants offer simplified management, warranty, support, and often additional functions and services that bring valuable added value. Opting for commercial OSS also actively supports and maintains the open-source concept, ensuring that its principles continue well into the future.

Elmar Geese, COO, Greenbone Networks