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Open source vs proprietary software: Getting the right fit

Anuradha Ramamirtham, Principal Correspondent

To run a successful company, its backbone—information technology—should be robust. You must choose software that fits your requirements, evaluate the total cost of ownership, calculate the return on investment, and decide whether it's suitable for your company. Today open source is a good option when it comes to attaining these objectives, but a comparison of

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open source vs proprietary software really helps before setting out on this path. "Normally, when I am deciding on a particular deployment, I take the next five years into consideration. If a company hasn't evaluated keeping even three years in mind, then it's a big mistake on the company's part," says PKX Thomas, the chief operating officer of Cleartrip.

During recession, we could be profitable only because we used open source. If you are smart and make the right choices, open source will be at least 50 percent cheaper as compared to proprietary.
PKX Thomas
chief operating officerCleartrip

 A common misconception among many on the open source vs proprietary software front is that freeware is open source, but there are dozens of applications which are freeware yet run on proprietary software. The main difference between open source and freeware is that you may not have source code for freeware (in many cases). Hence you are not sure whether there is something hidden inside the code. Cautions Girish Rao, the head of IT solutions for Marico Industries: "It is not at all advisable for companies to use freeware when they are running mission-critical businesses, because there is typically no guarantee or support."

Now,when it comes to open source versus proprietary software, open source is flexible because you have the code in your control, and can customize according to your needs. "Because the code is available to you, you have the solution to all future issues which may arise," explains Manvendra Bhangui, the chief technical officer of Consim Info (parent company of leading matrimonial site BharatMatrimony.com).

Again, if you are looking at things from a short-term perspective and for a specific purpose for which you want to prototype a solution, you might as well implement it first with open source. "Put the basic processes in place, see how it works, and leverage it to the extent possible," advises Rao.

However, choosing open source software depends on whether a company has the ability to take it forward. For example, if a CIO goes in for open source software, he should have a good team to support him, since support is available in good numbers only for popular software. For other solutions which aren't so popular, the support available just isn't enough. "At times, if you don't have expertise on the subject, and yet choose open source software just because you don't want to pay any license fees, you may fall flat on your face and end up paying more than for proprietary software just to make amends in the company," warns Thomas.

Security is the next important aspect. In any software, when you change the code, there is an impact. This creates effects which the programmer doesn't know of. In any open source vs proprietary software debate, remember that when you look at open source there are millions of eyes which look at the code. Hence, the number of bugs present may be lesser in nature. As a result, these bugs get eliminated in a matter of time. By contrast, for proprietary software, you have a small team of people working on that particular company-specific software. Hence, there can be a delay in addressing any security issues that arise later.

"It's not that open source is virus-free, but fewer viruses are found when compared to proprietary software," says Balwant Singh, the head of IT services for Indo Asian Fusegear. Also, since you have the source code, you can do an audit and check if everything is fine.

Hardware requirements are also a criterion to consider while doing the open source vs proprietary software evaluation. "Proprietary software requires more hardware because of the overhead that is built into it," says Singh. "In a proprietary system, you don't know how many processes are running along with the required processes. That is, whether malware or Trojans are also running side by side."
 
Adds Bhangui, "In 2000, at my previous company, Sify.com, we were running a messaging solution. For using proprietary software, we required more than 20 servers to cater to the users. But when we shifted to open source, the server requirements came down to just two."

Further, with open source, there are lesser issues of server downtime. "From 1999 I have been working with open source, and in all the situations where we have gone from proprietary to open source the servers were up for years. Even at my current company, BharatMatrimony.com, our servers are always up, and servicing users 24x7," says Bhangui.

Cost-wise too, when you do a comparison of open source vs proprietary software, your IT expenses get reduced in the case of many open source solutions, since you are not paying for licenses. You are only paying for the support, whereas in the case of proprietary software, you pay the license fees as well as the support fees.

The point here is that with open source software your hardware requirements will reduce if you take the right choice. Hence your technology expenses will also come down. A classic example is that of Yahoo which evolved during the recession when it shifted from proprietary software to open source software. Thomas is in agreement with this aspect of the open source vs proprietary software evaluation. "During the recession, we could be profitable only because we used open source software and because of the kind of technological choices we made. Had we used proprietary software, I don't think we would have been profitable. If you are smart and make the right choices, open source will be at least 50 percent cheaper as compared to proprietary."

Yet the task doesn't end with choosing open source software, installing it, and then running it. The company should also focus on training its employees in the software. This will ensure that you attain maximum mileage when it comes to leveraging benefits of the open source vs proprietary software debate.