Q&A: Bernard Golden on why your future depends on open source

Dana McCurley, Associate Editor

If commercial software companies are going to be slashing prices, can't I just continue using commercial products instead of considering open source alternatives?
I expect commercial vendors to begin treating the license fee as a loss leader. While the license will be offered at a significant discount, the additional, unbundled services -- like support, training and so on -- will continue to be fully priced. Also licenses will undoubtedly be priced with a huge number of options (e.g., number of processors, user processes, types of clients and so on), so that the overall license fee will still be quite expensive and difficult to understand.

In addition, future upgrades will probably not be offered at the same discount -- you're locked in at that point, so why should you get as good a deal? That's why one of the recommendations in the

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webcast is to ensure you've got the right contract conditions in place when you sign up. What kind of projects do you recommend for initial open source projects?
We always recommend that organizations begin with a low-risk, bounded project. By "bounded" we mean one that is fairly standalone and does not require extensive integration. There's lots of learning that goes on when an organization begins using open source, so a project that is not mission-critical or under schedule pressure is a good starting point.

Internal Web sites, also called "portals," are good first projects. There are a number of open source products -- including Apache, MySQL, PostgreSQL, Perl, PHP and Zope -- that are good candidates to use in a portal. They are well-established open source products and are good products to begin with.

Also, if your organization wants to begin experimenting with a new technology, open source may be a good fit. For example, if you want to begin working with Web services (e.g., SOAP, WSDL and so on), there are a number of good open source products that can serve as learning tools. We've used Perl's SOAP::Lite module to create Web services interfaces, so it is one candidate to experiment with. I've heard support is an issue for open source products. Is that true?
Depending on your perspective, open source support may be better or worse than commercial software support. For most open source products, there are active user forums that offer insight, advice and help. These forums can be excellent sources for product support.

Some open source products have companies associated with them that offer paid technical support services. For example, for JBoss, an open source J2EE application server, a company (also called JBoss, which can be a bit confusing) offers excellent paid technical support.

Many organizations considering open source are reluctant to rely on user forums for support. They feel there is too much risk without "one throat to choke." So they would be anxious unless commercial support was available for an open source product. For them, typical open source support would be worse than commercial support.

A contrary view is possible, however. Many organizations are extremely dissatisfied with the support they receive from commercial vendors, citing high prices, poor quality support personnel and an "it's not our problem" attitude. For these organizations, support from an active community may be better than commercial offerings. So, to repeat the sentence from the start of this answer, depending on your perspective, open source support may be better or worse than commercial software support.

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