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26 June 2012

Back to basics: Standards and open source

By Andrew Clifford

Standards and open source are fundamental to reducing the costs and risks of your IT.

Everybody agrees that standards are a good thing. People like open source software because it is free. What is less clear is the effect that standards and open source have on long term IT costs and risks.

One of the main causes of excessive IT demand is technology refresh. This is IT demanding IT; costs and risks without business value. If the functionality of a product is based on standards there is less need to keep to the latest version. And when you do decide to upgrade, the impact is less because the new version will work the same way as the old.

For example, versions of Internet Explore (IE) before IE8 did not follow web standards closely. Upgrading from IE6 to IE7 and from IE7 to IE8 was important because of changes to how the browser works, but the upgrades were difficult. Because IE8 follows standards closely, there is much less of a need to upgrade to IE9, but many fewer issues with doing so.

One of the criticisms of standards-based software is that it represents the lowest common denominator and does not have all the bells and whistles of proprietary software. But if you want to minimise the costs and risks of your IT, this is a good thing. Using more stable, conservative products means that there is less to go wrong, and less opportunity for vendors to force you into expensive upgrades. And with standards, you are not stuck with one vendor. Once you are on IE8, you can switch to Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome really easily.

The costs of open source software - free - can be very tempting, though in some cases that is offset by higher staff costs to understand implementation. What is more significant is the long-term dynamics of open source software. Because there is no vendor making money from upgrades, there is much less commercial pressure for you to take major, disruptive upgrades. Instead, there will be small upgrades to fix bugs and incrementally improve the product. It is easier to keep on current versions of open source software, without the hassle and expense of occasional major upgrades.

One of the arguments in favour of proprietary software is that you get more "out of the box". I am not sure that is true - modern Linux distributions contain hundreds of software packages. Where I think they differ is the ease in which you can opt for less. It is easy to get a minimal Linux server, which is just what you need for an efficient, secure and low-cost production environment. But with Windows you are stuck with a much larger footprint of functionality whether you need it or not. And all of that needs securing and upgrading. To minimise the extent to which IT demands IT, you need the option of using a much more stripped-down environment.

To minimise cost, risk and disruption, you need to be in control of the software that you use. Standards and open source achieve this in a way that proprietary software, however effective, can not.

Next: Back to basics: Extreme reuse


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