Elizabeth E. Ziph is quick with her response when asked why companies should use open source software. "It raises quality, lowers cost and doesn't take as long to bring a project online," she says.
As president and CEO of the Linux Box in Ann Arbor, Mich., Ziph might have some bias—her company makes its living from open source consulting, development and integration.
Although in its early days open source often entered the enterprise through some IT skunkworks project that spread through a department, it's now often a CIO-led choice, she says. Budgets are the main driver, explains Ziph. "Everybody says that IT costs way too much, even though IT is seldom more than 10 percent of an organization's expense -- and within that, 10 to 15 percent is for software."
Open source cuts license and maintenance fees to zero. The controversy is over total cost of ownership and whether the people required to maintain open source make it more expensive to operate. Sometimes the CIO selects open source; sometimes one of the business users finds an open source application and brings it in to help meet budgets.
Compared to buying a software package from a vendor, working with open source requires a different way of thinking. With a package, the buyer knows what the features are—more or less—after allowing for vendor hype. When something goes wrong, the standard practice is to pick up the phone and yell. And when a user wants a new feature, he gets on the waiting list and hopes, or perhaps prays.
With open source applications, a CIO has a hard time finding anyone to yell at. But Ziph says that once they adapt to the new paradigm, CIOs can find it highly productive and great for personal and professional development. "It's an opportunity to collaborate with other organizations and have input on how software is developed so it will do what they want."
So a company that needs a file system that can be distributed over a network and has certain specific needs can join an open source community for the file system, write requirements, perhaps assign one or two people to assist in the development and then contribute the results back to the community.
"You get your custom requirements and don't have to worry that the next release won't contain the code you need," says Ziph. "Plus, you are getting input from other organizations and you have influence over how it works, so the quality of the software goes up."
Admittedly, open source efforts are sometimes like herding cats, she adds. But since the community has so many developers, it can create new features faster than most vendors. "If there are enough developers, you just need a head who understands the issues and priorities."