Open-source software was a bit of a utopian idea. It began as – and for the most part still is – software created by a community of people who are dedicated to collaborating to produce true innovation and allow the evolution of new and better software. When you put it that way, it almost sounds too good to be true. But surprisingly, open-source software never blew up. In fact, this software Shangri La is still thriving, thanks in large part to the internet and the culture of sharing that the web has always helped espouse.

In fact, some of the world's biggest and most recognizable brands in tech subscribe to the open-source philosophy, including WordPress, OpenOffice, GIMP, Mozilla, VLC, Linux and – the most familiar example to many users – Google's Android operating system. For users, that means there's increasingly an open-source alternative for just about every type of software you can think of. Here we'll take a look at open-source software, what it has to offer and where it sometimes falls short of the mark.

What Is Open Source?

The term "open source" can be applied to a lot of things, from computer software to economics to pharmaceuticals and even governance. But in software, open source refers to the software's source code, which, unlike in proprietary software, is available for everyone to see, share and tinker with. Instead of putting the code behind copyright, it's given away under an open-source license, allowing people to share it, modify it and even distribute modified versions. (To learn more about licensing, check out Open-Source Licensing – What You Need to Know.)

However, the Open Source Initiative, a nonprofit corporation with global scope formed to educate about and advocate for the benefits of open source, does not content itself with just saying that open source equals access to the source code. On top of that, the open source license should make the software freely redistributable. That means not only should the source code be made available, it should also be modifiable. What's more, it has to be technology-neutral.

Why Open Source?

You'd think that companies would want to develop proprietary software to sell to consumers. And, in many cases, that's true. But in the opening keynote speech at LinuxCon in August 2012, Linux Foundation Executive Jim Zemlin noted that open source is now a key aspect of how all companies develop software, even companies that have generally been considered mostly closed, such as Apple, Microsoft and VMware. Why the shift?

It seems counterintuitive for competitors like Apple and Microsoft to use and contribute to open-source software, but the reality is that there are simply a lot of benefits to using open-source software, not least of which is the fact that consumers increasingly expect it. A study by Forrester Research found that close to 60 percent of business users were adopting open-source software to cut costs. Of those who adopted open-source software, close to nine in every 10 were able to get the level of cost savings that they were looking for. That explains why Microsoft supports Linux in its cloud – not because Microsoft necessarily wants to, but because customers demand it.

For consumers – and increasingly businesses and enterprise – open source software is becoming an increasingly attractive alternative to the traditional, proprietary suites. On the consumer side, the benefits include:

  1. It's All There
    Whatever you need, be it a database for your site, a content management system or an e-commerce solution, there's bound to be an open-source program to fit the bill. These programs are often ready to use and easy to deploy. For IT, that means that if a project requires new software, there may be no need to go begging for a budget.

  2. It's All About Control
    In 2008, Joanne Cook, a consultant at Atsun Technology in the U.K., blogged about how her company was affected by licensing changes to software from ESRI UK. According to Cook, ESRI essentially pulled the rug out from under Atsun, demanding £7,000 per user for the software (which the company had been using under a discounted license) or lose access to the program. Oh, and they had three weeks to do it.

    Although this is definitely a worst-case scenario, by using proprietary software, companies may be at the mercy of software vendors. That means that what started as a great licensing agreement could easily change, making business very difficult, and exposing the company to a tough transition.

  3. Better Security
    Having the source code available for everyone to see means that hackers and other cybercriminals could discover vulnerabilities and use these to hack into your system, right? Surprisingly, that's not the case.

    In fact, open-source software has the same level of security as proprietary software, according to a report by security company VeraCode. The report found that open-source software has comparable security and fewer potential backdoors compared to commercial or outsourced software.

    However, there was a significant difference in how quickly flaws were fixed. Open-source applications were fixed within 36 days of a vulnerability being submitted, compared to 48 days for internally developed apps and a whopping 82 days for commercial applications.

    That may explain why in terms of quality, 92 percent of business and tech professionals reported that open-source software met or surpassed their quality expectations, according to Forrester Research. (Learn more about how commercial software is patched in Patching the Future: New Challenges in Software Patching.)

The Downsides of Using Open Source

If we have you thinking that open source is really where it's at, it's time for a dose of reality. Technology is complicated, which means that for every benefit, there is also a potential drawback. For IT, that means moving to open-source programs requires careful consideration. Here are some of the potential problems to be aware of:

  1. Support Can Be Scarce
    Because open-source software is often a collaborative effort, there is no single hotline number to call when something goes wrong. This will be much less of a problem if the software you choose is backed by a community of developers, but it still means you'll have to be resourceful when tech problems arise to get the help that's available online.

  2. It Can Be Difficult to Use
    If you are migrating to an open-source solution, this can mean a change for employees, many of whom may not be especially tech savvy and are unlikely to be familiar with an open-source interface. That said, this problem comes with any software migration, regardless of whether it's commercial or open source. However, weighing the loss of productivity that will occur as a result of implementing a new system is essential when moving to open-source software.

  3. Licenses Can Be a Nightmare
    You need to carefully review your open-source licenses with corporate lawyers before implementing or using these programs. Open-source software often includes work from many contributors who, somewhere along the line, may file suit against those who inappropriately use a feature they have added into an open-source code.

    It happens: In 2007, Verizon was sued by the Software Freedom Law Center on behalf of a General Public License (GPL) software package called Busybox. The suit claimed that one of Verizon's suppliers used a GPL-licensed package in a Verizon product, but failed to fulfill the redistribution requirements of the GPL.

  4. New Features Emerge Slowly
    Unless it's managed or backed by a reliable company, open-source software might have fewer features and newer ones may be slow to emerge. This largely depends on what type of software you are using and how important new features are to your business. Plus, this isn't true of all open-source software; just take a look at how fast Mozilla is churning out new features for its Firefox browser. Linux, on the other hand, has always lagged behind Windows in coming up with features for its operating system.

The Bottom Line on Open Source

Open source is just about everywhere these days, including enterprise IT. From content management systems to email servers to VoIP services and others, there are trusted open-source software solutions available to fit most IT needs. Most compellingly of all, many of these solutions are free, and allow companies to modify them to meet their unique business needs. If it sounds too good to be true, well, despite a few minor drawbacks, it may just be the one utopian idea that actually works.