Supporting Open Source

Supporting Open Source by pendragon David Whelan Open source software is a tremendous boon to small organizations – or even larger ones with little funding – who need to provide services in competition with larger, better funded organizations. Regardless of the philosophical issues relating to open source, many of these applications can enable these groups to provide information and resources that they would be unable to provide otherwise.

I believe small organizations can be aggressive about adopting open source technology – Linux on the desktop and servers, Apache for the Web, OpenOffice for the office suite – despite the spectre that is continuously raised by commercial vendors of the “total cost of ownership” and how their multi-thousand dollar product, ignoring maintenance costs, is actually CHEAPER than the free alternative.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t some smoke around their bonfire.  Anyone who acquires open source software needs to be completely informed about the consequences of using and supporting it.  Depending upon the license which enables the free distribution of the software, any enhancements may belong to the community rather than to the organization developing them.  Alternatively, where you could call up Microsoft for help with their server product (no, really, don’t laugh, you can call if you pay enough money – just not the great unwashed people who only BUY the product and not the additional maintenance, etc.), you’ve got to be more industrious to support your open source environment.

If you don’t have that kind of energy, better to buy Windows because “no-one was ever fired for buying Windows”.  Right?  On the other hand, if you want to take advantage of the untold opportunities available, you can rely on a whole horde of developers and other aficianados that typically grow up around each of these applications.  True, some of them may come off a bit brusque if you fail to follow the etiquette – don’t post a newbie question, for example, without having already reviewed the e-mail discussion list archives to see if it’s already been answered – but the informal support network is remarkable.  There are few open source applications that I’ve come across that I would be truly concerned about implementing once I’ve found there’s at least some community that still works on the product.

My favorites, though, are products like Zope or Farcry where you can not only get something for nothing (ish) but if you really need help getting started or doing something that isn’t included, you have a clear path to get some help if you’ve got the money to pay.  Who wants to pay for a commercial application server and then have to pay for all of the customizations and ongoing licensing, etc.?  If you continue to be concerned about whether open source applications can really be maintained in a small environment – bar association, small law firm, law school, law library – you should select one, install it, and get a sense for how far forward you can go for free, even if you end up having to pay some money to get where you finally want to go.

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David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.