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A couple of pointers on the best open source software for business use

I know that there are about 100,000 Open Source projects. How do I sift through them to find software that's ready for my company to use? We have 170+ employees and run Windows on desktops, a few NT servers and mostly Red Hat Linux servers. We run Apache and MySQL. I'm trying to switch over some of our primary server apps (financial, sales, IT management, warehouse) to open source. Someday, I hope to do the desktops, too. That's a tough sell!

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Excellent question. I hear this all the time from IT Directors. Much of the open source software you can find today is in an early stage and is not suitable for production. The last thing you want is to push beta-quality open source software on the enterprise, then experience a backlash because of problems.

The safest thing to do is wait until you hear industry leaders talking positively about a particular project, and recommending it for enterprise use. Scan the trade publications for reviews, case studies, and opinion articles that will make you confident that it's getting a wide thumbs-up. Do some searching in trusted publications on the type of application you're looking for, then see what comes up.

For less common types of applications, such as those specific to smaller industries, do some research on your own. You will need to cast a wider net, but you will also have to be more selective. Don't be afraid to contact the core developers of a project that looks promising. Ask about the history of the project - when was it started, what were the original goals, were commerical entities involved? Ask about current development - how many core developers are there, what is the release schedule, what are development plans for the next year? Ask if they can talk about the software in production use.

Ultimately, you have to decide if you are comfortable enough with the project to recommend it for enterprise use. I've done this in my book, The Practical Manager's Guide to Open Source for listings of production-ready open source software for servers, desktops, and custom application development.

For example, there are at least four content management systems that are ready for production use, including Joomla!, Bricolage, Zope, and phpWebsite.

This was first published in September 2005

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