Johannesburg, 19 Aug 2004
The open source revolution has taken root. The future for the software - particularly Linux - is bright. There are a number of drivers for this phenomenon.
Inus Gouws, a senior information management (IM) consultant at Computer Associates Africa, looks at the trends and patterns that have developed in the light of the ongoing open source versus non-open source debate.
Open source software, such as the Linux operating system, is maturing at a fast rate. This is because even non-technical decision-makers have grasped the benefits of open source software in business and they are championing its value proposition.
Open source software is readily available - at very low cost - and is technically supported by a growing corps of professional business concerns.
More significantly, the widespread acceptance of open software and its resultant maturity in marketing terms has more to do with the acceptance of its philosophy in business today - the sharing of knowledge for the good of all among like-minded people - than anything else.
This represents a paradigm shift - a quantum leap - from the proprietary (non-open source) software world, where intellectual capital and source code are closely guarded secrets, available to a select few.
Too good to be true
In the commercially oriented "hot house" that is the global business arena, this philosophy seems too good to be true. Can software be freely available to all at no or very low cost?
Can patches, upgrades even complete systems be available from "open source buddies" a continent or more away simply on receipt of a request via the Internet?
How is it that money seldom changes hands in these instances?
The answer to all these questions is found in the roots of open source development. Open software is "software for the people, by the people".
Its proponents are followers of "software gurus" such as Linus Torvalds, the information-age reformer, said to be cut from the same cloth as Martin Luther who ignited the Protestant Reformation with his assertion that no worldly power had the right to interpose itself between the individual and God.
Nearly 500 years later, Torvalds insisted that nobody should get between computer users and their CPUs, thus began the Open Source Reformation.
The yin and yang of it all
Today, while the business community is embracing the open source philosophy, it is still anchored in the proprietary world, due to its dependence on non-open legacy systems that run, manage and control a sizable percentage of all business transactions.
But now, the two philosophies are learning to live side by side as monopolistic walls crumble and software developers, maintenance experts and other professionals learn to bridge the divide and talk to one another.
It`s a relationship that mirrors that of the basic opposites, Yin and Yang, coming together in a world that, according to the Chinese, is correctly identified as a mixture of the two.
Today, more often than not, open source protagonists accept the proprietary system owners` need for confidentiality and secrecy, while proprietary systems supporters are coming to terms with the free-thinking, open minded position of their opponents.
As a result, the open source evolution is gaining momentum and maturity. In effect, the open source crusade has gained critical mass and amassed sound business credibility in the process.
For example, there is a wide range of popular open source software systems - including the very latest anti-virus solutions - available for immediate download via the Internet. And there is online support available from a variety of sources to help tailor this software to meet specific business needs.
There are also many specialist organisations offering face-to-face, on-site support and a growing corps of Linux-certified engineers in the marketplace.
Insiders say that when a problem is identified by a Linux user, within hours there could be as many as 40 000 experts from user groups around the world addressing it.
And when the solution is found it is disseminated among all those involved, enriching the knowledge base and benefiting all Linux users.
Such a passion for the sharing of knowledge is a powerful tool in the open source armoury and, while not easily understood by the hard-nosed commercial world, is becoming embraced by it for practical reasons.
In this light, many open source supporters ask whether the research departments of the proprietary software vendors are as efficient and active as the many thousands of developers working "for the passion" in the open source world - and are they as swift to react to problems such as viruses and the threats of malware?
Many industry watchers maintain that proprietary vendors (including Microsoft, Sun and Unix) will be playing "catch-up" in only a few years time as open source solutions steam ahead in terms of their sophistication and marketplace appeal based on these and other performance-related criteria (not to mention cost).
They say that proprietary systems have for too long ridden on the back of slick marketing campaigns and their success driven by the need to meet corporate profit targets.
Now, because of spiralling development costs, they will gradually become more reactive to marketplace demands and less of a force.
Open source solutions, on the other hand, are right on the button in terms of meeting user requirements, as software is constantly developed among a huge and growing army of global specialists on whom the sun never sets.
The efforts of these specialists to better the software - from application, security, compatibility, performance and many other perspectives - is never ending.
Many believe that open source developers are more skilled, as they have been trained in higher levels of code generation (such as C and C++), compared to the unstructured Visual Basic language common to their proprietary bound brothers.
This is being recognised by major global players such as Computer Associates, IBM and others who have announced significant support for Linux.
One of the biggest debates currently raging is over the role of open source software at desktop level.
Currently this is the domain of the proprietary vendors - with Microsoft well ahead of the pack. But the future is bright nevertheless with, for example, the Windows plug-and-play functionality being emulated by Linux`s Auto-Discover solution. And in the gaming sector there is considerable integration between Windows graphics cards and drivers built by the open source community.
In this arena, support is available from small start-up companies - such as Nerds on Call - to more established companies such as Linico (www.linico.co.za) and Obsidian Systems (www.obsidian.co.za).
In SA, the government is showing the way with its adoption of Linux. The climate is right for a significant uptake of Linux technologies that will assist in job creation, more training programmes targeted at previously disadvantaged individuals, less spending on overseas-sourced software (money retention) and lower implementation costs to the average business - particularly as legacy hardware can more readily be used.