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15 January 2013

I would pay more for open source

By Andrew Clifford

Open source products are the best choice for integrating into larger solutions.

Our Metrici platform is built from multiple open source products. We use an open source application server and database, XML and HTML handling, expert system, script engine, graphics, and development and test tools. In total we use about 20 different open source products.

It is easy to see the commercial appeal of open source. You do not need to pay anyone to use open source. More importantly, you are free to deal in your software as your choose, without having to consider licensing implications and costs.

The longevity of open source and the control you have over it are even bigger advantages. There is less pressure on open source products to bring out new and incompatible versions than there is on proprietary products. When major, incompatible change is required, a new open source project is created and both this and the old product continue to have a life. You can choose which versions of which open source products to use, without reference to what a vendor will support and permit. You do not have to keep on the upgrade path unless you want to. If there is a good reason for you to use an old version, other people will be in the same situation and there will continue to be resources to support you.

Open source software is easier to integrate. You can pick and choose which bits you want to use. For example, I wanted to support SQL escape sequences. I found some code in the Apache Jackrabbit project. But I did not have to include the whole project, I could just include two source files. Proprietary software would not give me that freedom.

Because of the control that open source software gives you, there is less need to write interface layers to insulate yourself from changes, which makes open source easier to integrate. Most of our interfaces are relatively thin, simply exposing the parts of the component that we need to the rest of the system. Where we have used a proprietary product, such as Amazon S3 storage, we have had to adopt a more layered interface which abstracts the service so that we are properly insulated from any change forced upon us.

Documentation and support of open source is not as big a problem as it may seem. Few open source products have good documentation, and none provide contractual support. However, because open source products are used so widely, you can always find examples of people with the same requirements or problems as you.

Sometimes proprietary products can be worthwhile. With one of our partners we are considering using a proprietary charting library because it provides a consistently good user experience. Open source products do not fit well if the organisation is short of technical skills and has a culture where they would prefer to have suppliers to blame than to be in control themselves. But these are the exceptions: open source should be the default choice for integrated components.

Open source products are usually superior and always free. But even if they weren't, even if I had to pay more for an inferior open source product, I would still choose open source.

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