Open Source for the Enterprise - Managing Risks, Reaping Rewards - review
by James A J Wilson on 9 November 2006 , last updated
- Authors: Dan Woods, Gautam Guliani
- Publisher: O’Reilly
- Year: 2005
- ISBN: 0-596-10119-8
Open Source for the Enterprise picks up on the excitement surrounding open source software and attempts to harness it to good business sense and clear thinking. The book is aimed squarely at IT managers considering adopting open source software. Although the focus is on commercial environments, much of the advice will also be relevant to managers in public institutions.
Rewards and responsibilities of open source
Alongside the usual reasons given for adopting open source software - avoiding vendor lock in, saving money on licence fees, flexibility - this book pays particular attention to the more vexed reward of staff empowerment, specifically the increased skills set that the use of open source is purported to require and encourage.
The authors, perhaps a little harshly given the increasingly polished nature of many of the more popular programs, characterise open source software as lacking commercial levels of productization. By this they mean straightforward installation and configuration processes, clear documentation, and all the other details that make software user-friendly for less technical staff. Given this lack, they see it as incumbent upon IT staff to develop the necessary skills to be able to get the most out of the software:
To succeed with open source software, it is wise to plan for overcoming the lack of productization. It is the fundamental argument of this book that developing such skills can pay great benefits.
Organizations that are to get the most out of open source software need to adapt to do so, which includes avoiding key person problems - where only one person has the expertise required to get something to work, putting an organization at risk should that person leave.
Obviously, staff training represents an investment, but this is an investment, it is argued, that brings associated benefits beyond increasing the adaptability of software. The authors characterise the decision to go with open source software as an investment in time; proprietary software as an investment in money.
Risks of open source
One of the risks of adopting open source, according to Woods and Guliani, is that IT departments take on software that is too immature for their skills set to cope with. Honest assessment of the abilities of one’s staff is therefore important, combined with models for assessing the maturity of open source software, such as the Business Readiness Rating (BRR) or the Open Source Maturity Model (OSMM).
The authors also offer guidance on the dark arts of conducting a Return on Investment (RoI) study on open source software, taking pains to point out that licences are usually only a small factor in the costs of software (generally not more than 20% of true proprietary software costs). Such warnings are eminently sensible given the initial lure of ‘free’ (as in price) software. It is instead the second, sometimes overlooked, meaning of free (as in legally free to adapt), that may prove more beneficial in the long term.
There is a useful and relatively straightforward chapter on licences, to help managers understand the legal restrictions that come with the freedoms of using open source. A further chapter describes the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) that opponents of open source employ to try to limit adoption, and to minimise potentially damaging consequences for traditional software markets. This includes discussion of the patent issues arising from the SCO vs IBM dispute, and it doesn’t pull punches regarding genuine legal uncertainties.
When and why to use open source
An important consideration that the book raises is the strategic value that IT brings to a company. Simply put, the greater this value, the more likely one is to benefit from the flexible and dynamic properties of open source. Using open source software gives an organisation control as well as responsibility.
While it is recommended that an organisation develop a learning culture among its staff to adapt to open source, the book also acknowledges the increasing role that open source consultancies can play in bridging skills gaps in specific areas.
Appendices - Software Applications
Open Source for the Enterprise concludes with over 60 pages of appendices evaluating specific open source software packages. These are of definite practical application, albeit limited shelf-life given the fast pace of change in the software market.
This book is written for IT managers, and should answer their questions about open source admirably. All the major issues, from developer motivation to legal wranglings, are covered in a clear and practical manner. The authors are perhaps over-cautious with regard to the challenges that open source presents, but this does at least ensure that every reader should be fully aware of what they are letting themselves in for. Over-excitement at the brave new world of open source is dampened, but hopefully without interest being extinguished. While the book remains current, it is to be recommended.
- O’Reilly (publisher) [http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/opensourceent/]
- Enterprise Open Source Magazine [http://opensource.sys-con.com/]
Related information from OSS Watch: