Going With Open Source Software

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Going With Open Source Software

Is it the right choice for your organization?

By: Marnie Webb

July 18, 2001

The open source movement has attracted a lot of attention in the last year, most of which has been focused on Linux, an operating system. So much so, that many people believe Linux is all there is to open source software.

However, open source isn't a single operating system. It's a method of software development and licensing. Generally speaking, open source software requires the distribution of the code, in a readable form, with the application. Access to the code allows people to make changes to the software, add features, or build other applications that will work with it. They can distribute these changes as long as the source code stays open. You can read more about it in Tom Jelen's article,Making Sense of Freeware, Open Source, and Shareware .

Open source software is usually developed by a community of people who are associated, not by company or geography, but by interest in the project. Often, changes, upgrades, and even the main application itself, are made by people who are volunteering their time. They are often working for the result- the ability to use a tool that does what they need it to do - rather than for a paycheck.

Potential Benefits of Open Source Software

Theory of open source aside, the real question is: how useful is open source software to nonprofits?

There are a number of potential benefits to using open source software:

  • It is often low cost or even free.
  • Because of the dispersed nature of open source development, Web pages often evolve to track the project and related resources. These pages can provide a tremendous amount of information for an organization wishing to implement an open source solution, whether it's a Web server, an operating system or word processor.
  • Often, open source software is more robust than its closed source counterparts. (Linux, for example, will reliably run on older computers).
  • Open source products often offer flexible combinations of features. Typically, so many people are working on their own version of the application, it is completely possible to find a version that meets your needs. For example, there are many Linux Distributions, each with its own feature set. Similarly, open source software can frequently be customized. If you are unable to find a version that meets your needs, you can build it yourself or find someone else who can do it for you it. If you participate in the user groups and make a suggestion for a feature or change, it is entirely possible that your suggestion can become a part of the final product. As a user, you have the potential to directly affect the software you use. And, if you are interested enough, you can even learn the programming language and make the changes yourself.
  • Open source development can offer you speedy and enthusiastic support. Because the users and developers participate based on their interest in and need for the application in question, they are frequently willing to go the extra mile to offer others support. Additionally, the developers and main programmers are often only an email away. This can be tremendously helpful when trying to get a system to work.

Potential Drawbacks of Open Source Software

There are some potential problems that you should be aware of when evaluating the feasibility of using open source software in your organization:

  • The first problem is compatibility. It's not always easy to get open source software to work with other applications. More and more funders are requiring nonprofits to use databases to track information, and those databases must operate with the standard set by the funder. Often, that standard is the office suite most often used, Microsoft Office, which isn't compatible with most open source programs. Additionally, if your organization already has existing computers and a network, it might be better to have all your applications compatible than to use some open source products in isolation.
  • Enthusiastic and varied support was previously listed as one of the benefits of open source software. However, it should be added that the support can sometimes be difficult to understand because it is frequently aimed at developers and not end users. On many open source projects, end user documentation is aimed at a very tech savvy audience.
  • Open source is not plug and play. Though many open source projects are more and more concerned with making their software easy to use, the fact is loading and installing the software can be a major hurdle for many users. Not all device drivers are supported in all installations, and oftentimes, the installation process leads the user through a series of questions that many would prefer not to think about at all, such as how to partition your hard drive.

The Bottom Line

So, it would seem that open source software for nonprofits is a good idea that doesn't quite work. That may be true. It depends on the specific needs of your organization.

When you are considering a solution for any aspect of your technology structure, it's a good idea to make a list of the requirements that solution has to meet. If you find an open source solution that meets your requirements, spend some time on the project's Web site. Remember that comprehensible support and product development should be one of your main requirements, and make sure you can get the necessary support from the site or associated mailing lists.

Learning More about Open Source

Here are some links that may help you find an open source solution to meet your needs: