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Open Vs Proprietary: The War is still On

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No sooner had I put up innocuous query on LinkedIn asking respondents whether open source is cheaper than proprietary software, responses to the same started flowing in. Experts and professionals from around the globe started debating the issue on the forum. Some were die-hard open source proponents arguing about all the good that is there in those lines of code written by the developer ilk. On the other hand, there were the pragmatists that argued against and prescribed more practical approach that could only be possible through the use of proprietary or as a few called it, closed systems.

The age old war between the two technologies, namely, open source and proprietary software is still very much on. Like the proverbial good versus evil clash, everyone was eager to paint the other as evil. Lost somewhere in translation is the real issue, namely which of the two is cheaper, secure, easier to maintain, etc. The question we really need to tackle is not a philosophical one, i.e., what is good or what is evil but simply which is preferable and which is not. So here is a primer on what is what.

Apples & oranges?

One of the issues that lot many experts often raise and rail about is when the two, namely open source and proprietary are comparable at all.  The way the two have emerged and evolved is the reason for it. While, open source has been around for many decades, thanks to the mainframe legacy, where in the computer belonged to the technologist. Hence, a breed of technologists emerged who believed in technology for the sake of technology. Meanwhile, the proprietary software, one can say is of recent emergence especially since the college dropouts Bill Gates and Paul Allen started peddling software developed by others for profit, and so was Microsoft and proprietary software born. Since, the past three decades, the war between the two has continued ever since.

Yet, while the two might be as different as chalk and cheese, for the IT manager and CIO who has to ensure that the IT infrastructure is safe, secure, up and running, the difference is much real and so is the comparison. For them, what really matters is what is affordable and lesser headache. All rest is frivolous. So for all whose soul might curdle at the comparison between apples and oranges, should know at certain instances, both are indeed comparable.

TCA or TCO?

Now, that we know that the two are and will be compared, let’s start to do it. The most basic way would be the cost factor. Simply put how much does it cost to put in a say Microsoft server and that of a Linux server of the same specs. That should tell us the story. Sadly it does not.

The devil apparently lies in the detail. So, while open source systems are downright inexpensive to implement when compared to proprietary systems, but there are a lot of other costs that are involved, namely administrative and training costs. Because of the pervasiveness of proprietary systems like Microsoft, getting people to work on MS Word is much easier that on OpenOffice Word processor. Thus it is often said that rather than focusing the total cost of acquisition (TCA), it is better to focus on the total cost of operation (TCO) over the software’s life cycle.  

 Yet, even keeping the TCO in mind, open source systems do tend to be cheaper (look at the box item on implementation of open office at IDSP, Pakistan). Cost wise, open source is often a winner all the way depending on what is the IT infrastructure you have in mind.

Prohibitive licensing cost

It is a known fact that for the proprietary systems the biggest cost component is the licensing one. While there are some discounts for the enterprise systems, when compared to consumer ones, yet it often translates into quite a hefty package. The basic argument is that this high cost ensures that the companies are able to invest into R&D and thus able to release much more efficient software, which would not have been possible otherwise.

Whereas the open source is free, isn’t it? Not always. As quite like proprietary software, there are a lot of vendors in enterprise space that license the open source software, like Red Hat, Novell, etc. In the open space, there are a lot of vendors, like IBM, Sun (now Oracle), that were also into consultancy. So there might be a cost differential between proprietary and open source for an enterprise, it is not completely skewed as it is often portrayed. Unless and until you believe in a hands-on approach, or are working with a partner whom you implicitly trust. As there are many flavours of open source the confusion is also quite high. Thus, it is misnomer that there is no cost really associated with open source, as it is equally corporatized like proprietary systems is.

An issue of manageability

Proponents of proprietary systems also highlight the fact that it is managing an open source system is fairly complex and cumbersome. The idea that you need to be a hardcore geek to be able to tinker around with kernels, etc. has gained much credence over the past many years.  If you need ease of use, go for proprietary systems.

While, that was true till recently, the scene has changed over the past few years. With the open source companies paying a lot of attention on GUI and ease of use, there is not much difference left between the two. In fact, were you to compare say an Ubuntu OS with that of Microsoft Windows, there would hardly be just nominal difference between them. The open source players have understood that to reach out to the lay audience, they need to engage them with simplicity. Thus you need not be a geek anymore to implement and operate an open source system.

More secure?

Another big factor that works in favour of open source systems is that it is seemingly more secure and robust, as there has not been any major spyware, or viruses. Often, there is no need at all to install an anti-virus solution that eats a good part of computer memory. Since Linux is a derivative of UNIX which was built on the foundation of robustness and security, it is often dubbed to be more robust.

Another thing that works in favour of open source is the higher uptime. There are hardly ever time when one would have heard of a Linux crash. In Linux the core operating system (kernel) is separate from the GUl (X-Window) from the applications (OpenOffice.org, etc). Linux doesn’t require frequent re-installation. Most things in Linux can be fixed without requiring re-installation. The benefit of this is all the users preferences can be preserved even if the OS needs to be re-installed. The case is quite different when it comes to proprietary systems, as there is a lot of attacks and issues with them.

How pervasive is open source

Most of the proprietary systems proponents proclaim that the reason why open source is more secure and there hasn’t been any attacks is because of low level of open source installation. The whole open source universe is so small that no hacker, etc. bothers about attacking them.

But delve a little deeper and the whole claim seems out to be pretty hollow. For instance, it’s basically impossible to use the Internet without using some Open Source as close to 60% of the web servers run on Apache.  Majority of Smartphones are powered by Open Source (Symbian, Android, Linux). Majority of web websites are powered by open source like WordPress, etc. 95% of the top supercomputers run Linux. In fact, Linux can be found in Sony TVs, Linksys Routers, Tvios, Nokia phones. MacOSX has around 10% market share (depending who does the numbers) and their kernel is Open Source. Thus, it is fallacy to say that the universe of open source is a limited one. In fact it is very ubiquitous.

One of the best things that open source still has is a wide and highly diffused support base. Help and aid on any subject can be readily found on the scores and scores of forums that are propagate open source. Also there are numerous websites that list freewares and applications that can be downloaded and installed immediately. Unlike, in a proprietary system, where you are completely by yourself or at the mercy of the consultant, there is still a safety net for open source. All you have to go online and ask for help. Quite like I did while working on the story.

In the end, going by the passion of the people who responded to my query on open source, it still seems like there are a lot of myths and half-truths that associated with the issue. But that should not be a hindrance when it comes to implementing an open source system.

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Written by Shashwat D.C.

May 13, 2010 at 6:05 pm

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