The brewing debate on which platform serves the needs of enterprise better, proprietary or open source software, has waged on for many years now, culminating in steady adoption of both systems across many companies around the world.

On the one hand, proprietary software is known to provide the stability and ease with which it can easily be deployed and used inside most organisations. That trusted brands are usually the ones behind these software adds to the credibility of the platform.

On the other hand, the steady rise of open source software proves that the same level of functionalities can be had at a much lower price, sometimes for no cost at all. Easy customisation and development also adds to the appeal of open source software.

For Computerworld Philippines' CIO Roundtable for the month of August, we rounded up three IT executives and took their pulse about the use of open source software in the enterprise.

For Nelson Labagala, ICT manager of Amon Marketing, moving to open source means easing a bit on the IT budget because of its lower total cost of ownership. "Its strength comes with the investment, and the cost. That's its primary strength," he emphasised. But despite the lower TCO, firms still find it difficult to introduce open source into the system, as in the case of James Guiab, CTO of Creative-Quoin. "We tried using open source office products [before] but there was too much resistance from the users. We ended up buying commercial licences," he explained.

In the same vein, the lack of IT professionals with the right skills sets suitable for open source is a bane for the platform. "The scarcity of personnel with open source skills sets [is frustrating]. Applicants/personnel with open source technology skill sets tends to demand higher pay," Daisy Quijano, IT manager of Isuzu Philippines, lamented.

Julius Suarez, sales engineer of IT security firm Sophos, sponsor of this month's roundtable, also offered valuable insights to the discussion.

Computerworld: Before anything else, let us lay the grounds first on what our definition of open source is.

Nelson Labagala: First, open source is a free source code from the Internet. You would just need to develop or customise it to fit your company's needs. Usually, what software developers would do is to develop it for the Philippine setting, then sell it to companies. Our supplier has developed a web-based ERP system for us, written in Java and the backend is MySQL.

The system is worth half a million pesos, unlike proprietary software where you would have to spend millions on the back-end alone, and then you would still have to buy per-user licences. Actually, our boss is not an avid fan of licensed software.

James Guiab: For me, open source is software where you have a copy of the source code of. One of our motivations for using open source is that you can take the source code and develop it further. Another motivation is that a lot of time, open source also means free software. Additionally, sometimes you have to customise the software down to the level of the source code, so it is an advantage to have a copy of the source code. Not necessarily so that you can modify it and repackage it later on to sell to companies, but for your own company's internal use.

Open source is not necessarily free. Sometimes it is, sometimes it is free as in free lunch (for the developers). Open source means you have a copy of the source code and you have the freedom to modify it and share it, as opposed to software solutions that do not normally provide a copy of the source code. Usually, open source is associated with free software, but open source and free are not always the same thing.

Computerworld: Mr. Labagala, since you've mentioned that your bosses prefer open source software rather than proprietary software, during times when you need an application, for example you've mentioned ERP or for example you will need CRM in the future, do you equally choose between open source and proprietary software or are you leaning more towards open source?

Labagala: Before we chose our open source solution, we tried out several free ERP software packages, we studied them and see if they fit the needs of our company. There was SQL Ledger, and OS Suite, we studied them thoroughly, but when it came to reports, they required an expert programmer to build reports for you using Perl. Perl programmers here in the Philippines are rare, we had a problem looking for one, so that's when our current supplier presented their open source solution. They fixed the errors in their own software and fitted it to the Philippine setting. It's going okay so far, it's still running, and if there are any problems, they can easily address them.

Computerworld: But in the near future, when you need an application, would you still go for open source or will you still consider using proprietary software?

Labagala: I will recommend open source, but we would still need the support of proprietary software. Like when we need to do reports, which do not come with the system of open source, we need to extract the data coming from an open source database (MySQL), we use Microsoft Access for it, or if we go straight to the reports, we use Cyrstal Reports, because it is easier to use.

Julius Suarez: I have an additional question. Do support services come with the open source ERP solution from your provider, or do you have to pay for the maintenance?

Labagala: The support is included, we use a chat system to fix the problems, but if we want something changed or customised with the program, there is a fee already.

Suarez: So, the code is with them?

Labagala: Yes, it is with them.

Guiab: I don't know, but more often than not, they should give you the source code. Normally, if a product is based on open source software, they are also obliged to provide the source code that they have modified. However, as I mentioned earlier, it will really depend on the licence agreement that the developer chooses in distributing his product.

Labagala: I think they sourced the software from the Internet.

Guiab: They bought it?

Labagala: They sourced it from the Internet then they developed it further.

Guiab: They developed it and then, they have new software? More often than not, that's the spirit of open source: I will give you the source code but if you modify it to your liking, it should also be open source. Most open source software will require you to share your source code if you developed it by building on top of existing open source software. The key here word here is "most." And that doesn't necessarily apply to all software licences.

Suarez: Unless they didn't modify the source code, because there are products using a programming language wherein you can't open your modifications for everybody to see.

Guiab: It's different. What you're saying is I used the software and created new software, as opposed to using the source code and changing that source code to come out with my new source code, then that usually has to be open source as well.

Suarez: Probably the source code isn't included with their contract.

Labagala: Yes, if the codes are included, then that's another pricing altogether.

Suarez: Even in the proprietary world, there are things like that, if you want them to build a program and you said that you want the source code for yourself, the price is more expensive. Usually, you won't have to rely for their support anymore. That is why I asked the question about the support, because if the source code is with you, you can just study it to enhance the software, so you wouldn't need support services anymore.

Guiab: But you know, that's part of the spirit of open source since you used the open source code, it is normally your obligation to give your source code also whenever you have to modify it.

Computerworld: Mr. Guiab, in your company, when you acquire new software, do you prioritise open source over proprietary applications or the other way around?

Guiab: We normally compare commercial software and open source software, but I think we should go one step further and compare this to SaaS. When buying commercial software, you pay for the software, you pay for the hardware, and you pay for the services to implement and maintain the system. With open source software, you normally don't have to pay for the software, but you still have to pay for the hardware and the services necessary to implement and maintain it. With SaaS, you just pay for the service. But at the end of the day TCO's will differ from a case to case basis but ease of use will always be in favor of SaaS.

Computerworld: You've mentioned that open source can sometimes be expensive when you need to source IT expertise from people, is that right?

Guiab: It's a case to case basis. Free may be cheaper but that is not always the case. You have to consider TCO, although the price of software may be zero there may be other things that will make it cost more: implementation costs, maintenance costs, training costs and opportunity costs.

Computerworld: What do you look for in evaluating open source technology? Is cost also one of your primary considerations?

Labagala: Yes, we consider the cost also, that's why when we get open source software, we prefer those that have been developed already. When you start from scratch, you only get about 30% of what you need, and you still need to develop the rest of the 70% yourself for how many months. You still need to get an expert who will develop the system in-house just for that, unlike if a third party has developed it, you are assured of the expertise that was put into developing it. You just have to install it for it to run.

Daisy Quijano: Our primary consideration is functionality, does it provide what we need? We also consider the learning curve for using the technology. Can our technical personnel learn and apply it as quickly as the proprietary counterpart?

Computerworld: But aside from ERP, what other open source software do you have?

Quijano: All of our Internet-based applications. So far, we have deployed an order-entry application (Parts Business Online), a warranty processing system (Online Warranty System), vehicle sales recording system (Online Vehicle Sales System) and we have customer relationship management system in the pipeline. All of these were developed using J2EE technologies, and deployed on open source servers (Tomcat/MySQL).

Computerworld: How about you, Mr. Guiab, what other open source applications do you have?

Guiab: We try to use open source software on the server side like (LAMP) Linux, Apache, mySQL and PHP. We also use some open source web based solutions such as Joomla, some network management tools and other server side software.

Computerworld: What can you say are the strengths and weaknesses of open source software as opposed to SaaS and proprietary software?

Quijano: Foremost of our consideration is cost, it entails zero acquisition cost, we don't pay for user licences and we don't have to spend on upgrades. Weaknesses, it requires a rather specialised skill set which is not readily available with new graduates.

Guiab: The strength of open source software is that I can customise or modify it at source code level which we have done a few times. But more frequently, we use open source software that is free because it costs zero pesos to acquire. For free software, I don't have to get approval for the additional cost of implementation and additional opportunity cost if ever there is one. I am able to provide a solution for my users without having to seek approval for a budget. That's the reality of things, although TCO of commercial software may be lower, it is often still harder to get approval to purchase commercial software.

Computerworld: So, the issue is more on who will support open source?

Guiab: I think there are companies here who offer open source and they make their money through implementation and maintenance fees. I came across a company a couple of years back that had a team of Red Hat engineers, these are certified engineers for the Red Hat platform.

Computerworld: But where will you source support if there is no local presence available?

Guiab: With free open source software, you are at the mercy of community support. If you are lucky, your problem has been encountered in the past and a solution is available in a knowledge base somewhere. If not you will have to wait for someone for help that may come a day, a week, or maybe even a few months later. There are normally no SLA with free open source software.

Computerworld: So that would need more manpower.

Labagala: If you're not a developer company anyway, you don't have to develop it in-house. Just buy something that is developed already.

Suarez: When we use open source, for example Red Hat, we expect it to have updates every so often. But there are also open source software which we are not sure if there will be a next version to it. The customer is the one who will push the next version, especially when they need new features. But we still don't know if the enhanced version has a base code that is updated also. In my experience, I download open source software from the web. I install it, and I instantly know if there is a new version of the software, and I can upgrade it automatically. But when I develop it myself, and there is an upgrade to the base code, what will happen to those that I have already developed, right?

Computerworld: Do you have any frustrations with open source?

Labagala: One of my frustrations with open source is that the ones that are currently available are not fully developed yet. You still need to enhance them to fit the needs of your company. If you are not a developer, you can just use readily available open source software developed locally, so you will have support for it. The reports that you cannot get from the system, you can just extract from the database anyway.

Quijano: For me, it's the scarcity of personnel with open source skill sets. Personnel with open source technology skills set tends to demand higher pay. For now, the company has decided to pursue outsourcing.

Guiab: My frustration is when I am forced to use open source because of budget constraints. There are times when open source is an ideal solution such as with LAMP, but there are cases where we are forced to use open source simply because we can not justify buying commercial software

Computerworld: Have you experienced that already?

Guiab: Fortunately, the few times I was forced to use open source software was for software that I didn't use that often. And since I didn't use it that often, I couldn't justify buying the commercial counterpart. The problem is more with desktop software. Especially since most de facto standards for desktop software are based on commercially available software. In my case, I was forced to use open source project management software because I couldn't buy a copy of the commercial counterpart. It becomes frustrating because the files created by this software could not be read by the commercial counterparts. To share my files, I had to ask other people to install the open source software too.

Computerworld: In your respective companies, how much of the software you use is open source and how much is proprietary?

Labagala: In our case, for example, only the officers are using Microsoft Office. The rank and file employees use Open Office, and we train them on how to use it. But when they send it to the bosses, they have to use a Microsoft-recognisable extension. Our servers, proxy server, mail server (sendmail) and web server (ERP), all run on Linux.

Guiab: Without mentioning brands, I would say I normally use commercially available software for desktops and I try to use open source software for servers when a solution is available.

Quijano: In some areas of our computing needs, open source has gained equal footing. For example, for our Internet/Intranet-based applications, the company has relied exclusively on open source technologies. We are using Java/J2EE technologies for our application development. We use Eclipse for our IDE, JSP/JSF Spring Frameworks, MySQL database and Tomcat web server.

Computerworld: Were there instances that you had to migrate from proprietary to open source?

Labagala: Before, for our business process, we were using FoxPro, which is a DOS-based networked application. It was difficult to maintain. It was developed on FoxBase, so they were using Clipper codes then. It would've been better if the source codes were from FoxPro, but it was running from FoxBase, and compiled on FoxPro. From being a DOS-based application, we migrated it per module to Visual Basic, but it was difficult to integrate because the developers had a different way of approaching it. So in the end, we hatched the idea to go open source, until OS Suite came in, but we still had to study it. Eventually, someone demoed a fully developed open source software that fit our requirements.

Guiab: We tried using open source office products but there was too much resistance from the users. We ended up buying commercial licences.

Computerworld: In the near future, what applications are you planning to migrate more to open source, and why?

Guiab: Not at this time. We now have a healthy mix of open source and commercial software.

Labagala: We are planning to fully migrate to [email protected] The new system will enable our salesmen to enter information right from their mobile devices and straight into the system.

Quijano: For the near term, we are about to start development of a customer relationship management system. On a smaller scale, we have plans of adding functionalities to our existing systems.