The new economic imperative for open source app dev

Rails developers argue that community support and lack of licensing fees tilt the scale to open source in tough times

Finding it harder to get the resources needed to develop your business's apps? Open source options for software development, such as Ruby on Rails, offer ways to get software projects done during the current brutal economic climate by providing community-based resources and saving users from paying licensing fees.

With open source platforms, developers can access technology and community feedback free of charge. "I'd say open source is more economical for all types of development," says Caleb Houser, a software specialist professionally, as well as a student at Spokane Community College. Open source saves money that could be going for other things, he adds.

[ Microsoft argues it's the lower-cost choice for developers in tough times. | Has open source defeated Microsoft? Advocates say yes. ]

Why Rails developers say open source is cheaper -- and better
Other developers concur. Open source is a lot cheaper than using Microsoft .Net tools, says Jason Derrett, a developer at the Squeejee Rails consulting firm. "We don't have to spend $2,000 per seat for development tools," he notes.

Community sharing also offers benefits, Derrett says: "If you want to talk about not just strictly dollars, the fact that the community can contribute to everybody else's projects and we can share those contributions means that you don't have to wait six months to get a release for a simple bug fix, so that's a savings."

A developer at the recent RailsConf 2009 touted potential savings presented by Ruby on Rails, citing less-expensive deployment and lack of vendor lock-in. "I prefer it because of the community and the resources and the ability to learn and the ability to look at the source code," says David James, a Web developer for Sunlight Foundation, which provides APIs to open up government data.

One developer, Norman Clarke of search marketing firm Add Three, chimed in that Rails was drawing some more focused attention because of the economy, even if overall interest had dropped a bit in the wake of the souring marketplace. With Rails, development takes less time and a lot of developers want to work with the platform, he said.

Clarke endorses open source as a more economical solution for both Web and other development projects. "Sometimes, companies think their time to market will be shorter if they use some commercial software, but the risk is that down the road they'll end up spending much more than they anticipated because they wind up with less technical support than they thought," he says. "Having another company own your core infrastructure is less than ideal, and software licensing fees can scale faster than your application's needs."

"I think that open source software is definitely [a] more economical for development because you're not going to have to write as much stuff by yourself," concurs Martin Emde, a developer at porn site Naughty America. "An open source culture, like the one around Ruby on Rails, means that more good code is going to be freely released and available. This means more code you don't have to write in-house."

He contrasts that to his experience with standard commercial software: "I've had nothing but trouble with closed source software. No software is perfect.... [but] you can't fix closed source yourself, so you wait [for a vendor fix] or you pay to have it fixed."

Rails called a boon to startups
Rails presents opportunities for those looking to start a business, says David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of the Rails framework. "When you're starting a business, you want everything to be as cheap and fast as you possibly can," he says. "Rails just makes it so you spend less on resources, on building stuff," instead of on software licenses.

Squeejee Rails' Derrett concurs that the down economy provides developers an opportunity to start a business using low-cost open source tools such as Rails. "The down economy is a pretty good time to start your own business," he says, because there are fewer great opportunities you would pass up in business. "There are not all these lofty jobs to shoot for," he notes.

Why the total cost equation can be tricky
But one developer did not believe Rails or any open source tool necessarily saves on development costs. "I don't think it makes any more difference than any other platform," says Darrin Holst, a software engineer at GeoLearning, an online training firm.

"You still have the same complications that you do with Java or .Net," such as providing infrastructure. "[Rails] makes it really easy to develop code but you still have to get that code out to production. There are still hurdles," Holst says.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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