Companies, including MySQL AB and Red Hat, have built successful businesses by charging money for enterprise-level support for free software. As such ventures continue to grow and flourish, proprietary software vendors must ask themselves whether the business benefit of keeping their source code under lock and key really outweighs the other benefits offered by this new software paradigm.
For software vendors and customers alike, the key benefit of this new style of software development is community. The community surrounding an open source project is its life’s blood. Even the best code will wither and stagnate if it’s not supported by an active, thriving, and engaged developer ecosystem.
For a customer company, evaluating those communities can be one of the more difficult challenges in the software procurement process. The decision to buy a given piece of proprietary enterprise software often comes down to the reputation of the vendor in question. When evaluating an open source project, however, the factors involved can be considerably more complicated.
Before a company makes the decision to deploy any open source project, it’s critical that experienced IT staff investigate the project thoroughly. How is its developer community organized? What is its model of governance? Who are its most active participants? Who is allowed to commit changes, and how often does that happen? How are internal disputes resolved? How is the code licensed?
The backing of a major software vendor can lend an open source project additional credibility with enterprise users, but it also raises additional questions. For example, commercial vendors can approach community-building in various ways. Some view it as a purely laissez-faire exercise, whereas others may harbor hopes of using their communities as sales channels for their service organizations. As a customer, it’s best to seek out companies that promote open source but also clearly delineate between their open source and their commercial efforts.
Ultimately, every IT decision begins with a business problem. Solving those problems remains Job No. 1 for every IT organization; as such, open source software should be evaluated for its features, stability, scalability, security, and all the other standards to which proprietary software is held.
A natural outcome of the proliferation of open source, however, is more choices. The people in the best position to weigh those choices are the people who are closest to the projects -- who know the ins and outs of the community and have a feel for where a project is going. Because of that, skilled IT personnel with deep knowledge of technology, now more than ever, remain key assets for the most successful companies.