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As Open Source Evolves, So Do My Views


As Open Source Evolves, So Do My Views

Jun 26, 2014By Michael Stoner

My, how my views on open source software have evolved since I wrote ‘OPENSOURCE: GREAT IN THEORY, DIFFICULT IN REALITY’! But then again, a lot has changed since 2006.

First, let’s get the definition out of the way. In case you don’t know, the developer or copyright holder of open source software provides the rights to study, use, change, and distribute the software for free to anyone, for any purpose.

This differs substantially from the traditional model of software development in which a company or organization developed software and charged a fee for users to use it. This is how Microsoft made its money, developing products that it sold worldwide. In contrast to Microsoft Windows, the Linux operating system is open source: a large community of developers has been collaborating on the OS since the 1990s.

One of the major appeals of open source software has always been cost. Because it’s free, it seemed like a bargain to many organizations. You can’t beat free! Right?

Well, as the saying goes, it’s free like a free puppy. Free to acquire but not free to feed, train, manage, drive to the vet, and otherwise care for.

Take, as an example, content management systems, where mStoner has substantial experience.

Today, there are not only excellent open source content management systems, but also a support infrastructure in place that enables almost any institution to successfully run an implementation.

That wasn’t always the case. In 2006, when I wrote the blog post about open source challenges, it was more expensive to customize an open source solution. That may still be the case today depending upon your needs.

More significantly, though, an institution usually had to host and support an open source implementation itself. That meant finding and training staff who had the expertise to manage a particular system, install updates and patches, and make appropriate changes to the institution’s specific implementation as the overall product evolved. And there were other challenges: many open source tools lacked an easy-to-use interface for naive users, so additional training and support was required.

Potentially, that meant considerable overhead and inconvenience. It often wasn’t taken into account when implementing a “free” system.

But the open source marketplace has evolved considerably. Today, it’s not difficult to find and hire people with experience in popular open source content management systems, particularly Drupal and WordPress. There are also excellent third-party hosting and support options.

If you are embarking on a website redesign and are evaluating an open source CMS, you’d be wise to consider the following options:

  • Hire a qualified partner to design and implement your site. mStoner has implemented 25+ open source sites over the last four years.
  • Host your site in the cloud, with a company like Acquia for Drupal or WPEngine for WordPress. Purchase a managed service level that provides monitoring, proactive maintenance and patches/upgrades, and help desk support.
  • Hire or retrain staff members who will be responsible for site administration and web development. If your operational budget is tight, you can tap into a strong and growing pool of freelance talent.
  • Get involved in the open source community. Both Drupal and WordPress have tremendous online resources, local and education-specific user groups and meet ups, and conferences.

Things have changed considerably for the better. But it’s important to remember that not all open source tools are created equal. If you want to take full advantage of the benefits of open source, be sure you don’t fall into the trap of choosing an open source tool that is essentially similar to a proprietary tool in most respects except license and cost. That’s the subject of my next blog post.

  • Michael Stoner Co-Founder and Co-Owner Was I born a skeptic or did I become one as I watched the hypestorm gather during the dotcom years, recede, and congeal once more as we come to terms with our online, social, mobile world? Whatever. I'm not much interested in cutting edge but what actually works for real people in the real world. Does that make me a bad person?