To many businesses, open source software has long been considered a viable alternative to the traditional approach of paying license and maintenance fees for proprietary software.

Many best performing businesses view open source on an equal footing with proprietary software, and now use it for mission critical applications.

What’s more, the British government has pledged to accelerate the use of open source software, and its minister for digital engagement recently called it “one of the most significant cultural developments in IT and beyond over the last two decades.”

Questions about the scalability, performance and reliability of open source software have been answered through its use on such popular websites as Facebook, one of the world’s largest and most innovative applications, and LinkedIn, the professional social networking website that uses the open source database MySQL to handle its database of more than 30 million subscribers. These are real businesses running entirely on open source.

Yet, it may have taken the reality of a global recession to convince many enterprises that open source computing is ready for prime time.

After all, using open source software can result in savings in license costs of 70 – 90 percent compared to proprietary alternatives, while delivering broadly the same, or better, functionality. It can drive down not only software maintenance costs, but also future licensing costs when enterprise licenses come up for renewal.

This allows organisations to redirect budgets to other productivity areas, free up funds to invest elsewhere, or add them directly to the bottom line.

It’s this opportunity to save significant costs during difficult economic times that has convinced many mainstream businesses that the time is finally right. They have become more comfortable with open source software and have overcome the old perceptions: that proprietary software is bulletproof, and that open source is not; that it’s not supported or that it’s good for small applications only.

According to Georg Greve, president of the Free Software Foundation Europe, in a recent interview, “Free software has been gaining before and will be gaining after the crisis. It’s not necessarily crisis-driven, although the crisis provides a good opportunity for people to reconsider [their strategies].

Frankly, we see businesses that are doing well moving to free software and then doing better – it’s the preferred migration path for anyone.”

With IT organisations forced to do more with less, enterprises have become increasingly receptive to using open source computing for demanding applications.

According to market researcher IDC, “the economic downturn is affecting respondents’ perceptions about open source – they are becoming very practical in their opinions and in their perceptions of the value of it.”

Open source provides organisations with a rapid and practical path for quickly investing in and innovating with IT.

The software can be downloaded immediately, without the expense or time that occurs with traditional software procurement. Additionally, companies can often defer purchasing support until they are sure the software meets their requirements.

A Starting Point
A typical approach to migrating to open source platforms is to look at the overall application portfolio and identify those applications that are using proprietary hardware and middleware, but which could run as well and without increased risk on an equivalent open source and industry standard computing stack.

As an organisation makes these migratory moves, and builds more confidence with the new software stacks, then they should expand their usage. This can involve using open source for less mission critical apps like internal websites and employee portals, and then gradually moving the bar up the line.

Open source software allows companies to get things done even with constrained budgets – so new projects that previously may have been destined for the same proprietary hardware and software should be re-examined and moved to open source.

Yet, we also see more and more enterprises choosing open source software for truly mission-critical use. For example, the French Revenue Agency worked with Accenture to design, build and deliver web applications based on open source software that allows taxpayers to easily and securely file their taxes online.

The new powerful and adaptable IT environment created now includes more than 500 application servers and handles more than 80 terabytes of personal data with 99.9 percent availability.

While open source offers many benefits, organisations need to be aware that it can lead to management and control issues they would not face with proprietary software. As a result, they must ensure proper safeguards are in place to address various challenges.

Expanded use of open source requires an appropriate degree of governance to avoid multiple versions, to get the right support, to ensure that the platforms are tested so everything works together, and to ensure that license compliance is in place

It’s taken a recession for organisations to see that open source software is enterprise ready and has all of the same characteristics of software that people are use to, just licensed in a different way, with the companies selling it using a different business model.

Many have finally come to realise that they things they know and love in proprietary software are here too, only at a much lower price.

Graham Massey is senior executive – technology architecture, Accenture