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FLOSS vs proprietary software - what is best for business?


My presentation at the "Paving for eFuture" conference in Reykjavik 13.09.07, in a debate with a Microsoft representative

My presentation at the "Paving for eFuture" conference in Reykjavik 13.09.07, in a debate with a Microsoft representative

Published in Economy & Finance , Technology
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  • 1. Open source / free software vs proprietary software – what is best for business?
      • Kaido Kikkas Tallinn University *** Estonian IT Society Paving for eFuture Reykjavik, September 13, 2007
  • 2. For those unfamiliar with the free world...
    • ... these terms and concepts are worth studying:
    • free software
    • open source
    • GNU General Public License
    • copyleft
    • hacker
    • hacker ethic
    • Linus' Law on work motivation NB! Due to the presentation's small timeframe, additional arguments, data and links are provided by the complementary webpage (including these slides) at
  • 3. Looking at the title...
    • I'd like to ask about a small detail: Best for WHOSE business...?
    • I try to keep the user's (as opposed to vendor's) perspective
    • Plus, in the next slides I try to look at a business considering a shift from proprietary to free model and give some arguments to support the decision
  • 4. What would a business expect from its IT?
    • doing the necessary thing
    • reasonable acquiring costs (esp. SME)
    • reasonable running costs
    • reasonable (re)training costs
    • reliability
    • interoperability
    • security
    • support
    • flexibility, extensibility and scalability
    • choice of services and providers (no lock-in)‏
  • 5. 1. doing the necessary thing
    • All software regardless of licensing model can be appropriate. Or not.
    • A caveat – when moving to software with different licensing model, do not assume that all your previous knowledge remains valid. Or to put it simpler – Linux is NOT Windows
    • Yet the added benefit of open source code allows for better modifications. Also, the market is open – one can opt for in-house improvements or choose the best partner instead of paying extorting prices to a market dominator
  • 6. 2. acquiring costs
    • The smaller the enterprise, the more important (typically) issue it is
    • FOSS results in large savings in this stage (probably not denied even by proprietary vendors)‏
    • But even in the free world, going blindly for the seemingly cheapest option may not be wise
    • In the business world (somewhat opposed to the NGO, education and private spheres) using commercially-backed solutions (which may cost quite a lot) may be justified. But not always – an important factor is the in-house IT capacity
  • 7. 3. running costs
    • Similar to the former, but has more variables in it
    • Leaving your homework undone may sometimes hit quite hard
    • Due to the increasingly unreasonable 'intellectual property' system, may run into various artificial obstacles (patents etc) when not careful. In Europe, the problem is much smaller than in the US
    • Earlier, finding qualified staff was somewhat an issue (not much anymore, but depends on the location)‏
  • 8. 4. (re)training costs
    • Can be substantial when moving large numbers of employees to a new platform
    • In essence, do not depend on licensing model
    • Often cited as a prohibitive factor in moving to free models – yet the same applies to proprietary systems
    • E.g. for a typical desktop user, moving from MS Office 2000 to the new 2007 is arguably more difficult than moving to
    • Free model can result in more flexible training – again, you do not need “Authorized Trainers”
  • 9. 5. reliability
    • Depends also on the maintenance skills of the tech staff – incompetent technicians can work wonders (in a negative sense)‏
    • Free systems (e.g. BSD or Linux) have excellent reliability marks worldwide
  • 10. 6. interoperability
    • Proprietary systems tend to be interoperable as long as you use the products of the same company
    • Sometimes interoperability is considered directly counterproductive to the company's goals (the earlier case of MS Office documents, or also the current OOXML debate). Conflict of interests?
    • Free systems have more potential here, although it should not be taken for granted – in some cases the initial author does not have need for it and thus will not stress it
    • Open standards are the key – but more than often, there is a strong correlation with software freedom
  • 11. 7. security
    • A long-time plague in MS software: Trojan horses and viruses are 99% Windows-specific (in fact, a Linux virus is like the Yeti – some people claim it exists. Never seen one yet)‏
    • Being locked into a single platform also contributes towards weaker security – an attack will only need a single vector
    • A side remark: regardless of platform, the biggest security risk is always located between the keyboard and the chair => a training issue
  • 12. 8. support
    • At the first glance, this one is a clear win for proprietary systems. “Linux has no support”...
    • Actually, surprisingly large number of free systems have commercial support available. Moreover, the market is open (again) and thus it is much harder to charge excessive sums for support services
    • Support can be obtained both in a traditional way (by purchasing the software; e.g. Red Hat) or from third parties
  • 13. 9. flexibility, extensibility and scalability
    • Clearly better in free systems. Examples:
      • Most of the Top 500 supercomputers run Linux
      • Free NetBSD operating system supports more than 50 hardware platforms
    • Flexibility is an important factor in open source, so is extensibility. Both stem from the lack of either technical (lack of source code) or legal (prohibitive licensing) obstacles
  • 14. 10. Choice
    • Monoculture is dangerous – both in biology and in technology (some call it inbreeding) ‏
    • Proprietary vendors often strive to create large, unified solutions on a single (their own) platform, leaving it more vulnerable to threats
    • Also, having achieved a lock-in on a customer, the vendor is able to charge remarkably higher prices than in the case of open market
  • 15. Where proprietary approach may make sense
    • In highly professional, specialised fields with turnkey solutions handed out (e.g. composers)‏
      • the client can afford to pay for support
      • the client's time is expensive – losing access to his/her tools would cost much more than calling for a specialist
    • But even here I'd consider a free approach for greater flexibility and playing room for support
    • The more common the application, the more obvious should using the free model be
  • 16. Personal opinion: if I had a business
    • I'd run my IT sector roughly as follows
      • MS Windows only where specific applications demand it; preferrably also locked into a separate network cluster; prefer XP over Vista as long as possible; using free applications on Windows where possible (app compatibility)‏
      • MacOS X is an option for presentation/sales
      • The rest would run on free systems (exact methods – support etc - depend on circumstances)‏
    • And I would be far from the first one doing that
  • 17. Conclusion
    • Free models have been discussed from a variety of viewpoints – in this presentation we left aside ethical and social issues and focused on professional ones only (my personal reasons to avoid proprietary software are 50/50 a business decision and an ethical statement). But even these are sufficient
    • Thus, my point is: BE BUYERS AWARE :)‏
  • 18. Thank you! Contact: Kaido Kikkas [email_address]