That brings up an important concern that some customers have about open source. Free downloads of proprietary software are usually restricted in some way, be it through licensing terms or removal of certain features. For this reason, they have seen only limited use in enterprise settings. Open source vendors, on the other hand, routinely give away full-featured versions of their software. You can download and use all of the programs that make up Red Hat Enterprise Linux, for example, whether you pay Red Hat for a support contract or not.
What kind of foundation for a business is that? As customers, can we really put our faith in software companies built on such shaky financial footing?
Red Hat's Evans admits that there will always be people who don't want to pay for software; not every download of Linux guarantees Red Hat a sale. Proprietary vendors face this problem, as well. But Evans cautions us not to assume that everyone who uses open source software without paying for a support contract is a freeloader. He says that users who don't need professional support are generally highly technically capable and often end up contributing to Red Hat's product in other ways, either directly or through the broader open source community.
"They either in some cases will send bug reports, or in some cases they will actually contribute potential fixes. That's the beauty of the participatory community model," says Evans.
This participation highlights the real game-changing effect of open source. Giving away software is not new, nor has the greatest impact of open source been financial. But thanks to the community process, the relationship between software producers and end-users has been transformed – to a degree that has forced proprietary vendors to rethink the way they engage customers.
Evans might eschew the word "evil" to describe closed source vendors, but he does rely on another, mildly pejorative term. "I use the word 'protectionist,'" he says. "It doesn't mean someone's a criminal if they're a protectionist. They're trying to protect what they've built up, what they've done, and what they do."
But the protectionism practiced by closed source software vendors comes at a cost to the customer, according to Evans. Vendor lock-in, lack of interoperability, and the inability to make modifications to a software product – even to fix security flaws – all limit the value of the product to the customer.
"Customers are using open source to rebalance the relationship with vendors," explains MySQL's Urlocker. "Open source helps mitigate platform lock-in, for example."
Bintex's Wood agrees, adding that in his consultancy, open source has become the norm, rather than the exception.
"There is no question that 100 percent of our software deployments involves open source, even though the end product may not always be," he says. "Five years ago, it was often the case that our clients would say, 'open what?' Now, it is rare that we work with a client that has no knowledge of, or desire to work with, open source."
For Wood, open source's popularity boils down to one clear advantage. "It's about flexibility," he explains. "Even though the market will always demand some degree of closed source software, when there's an option to employ open source, we take it. Having toolset and application source code available lets us provide highly customized, cost-effective solutions."
Of course, few IT shops are forgoing proprietary software completely. Pure open source environments remain a rarity.