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14 March 2006

Free software - never look back

By Andrew Clifford

Free and open source software is a viable alternative to commercial products. Once you have switched to free software, you are unlikely ever to switch back.

I though I'd take a break from system governance and tell you about an experiment I have been running.

When I started Minimal IT a year ago, I thought I would see if I could run the company on free and open source software.

I am not just trying to avoid the cost of software, attractive though that is. I am also interested in the long-term. Organisations can find it difficult to upgrade to the latest version of software (particularly Microsoft operating systems and office software), for both technical and commercial reasons. Free and open source software tends to offer more incremental upgrades, which might make it easier to keep up-to-date.

So, what software have we used, and how have we got on?

We have been developing systems for our partner company, Metrici. For this, we have used the Apache Tomcat Java web server, GNU tools, Linux, Cygwin (a Linux emulator for Windows), the Java-based hsqldb database engine, MySQL, and Subversion for version control.

We have had hardly any problems with any of this software. I think we have had fewer problems during development, testing and deployment than I used to have with proprietary software. The software, documentation, and upgrade are all readily available. We have upgraded to new versions with no impact.

We have used free and open source office products. We use OpenOffice.org as our standard office suite, use Firefox in place of Internet Explorer, and use the Nvu HTML editor. At Metrici, we have just started using GNU Cash (accounting) and Sugar CRM (customer contact).

Our experience has been very good. The latest version of OpenOffice.org is excellent. We have had no problems reading or exporting to Microsoft Office formats. Firefox works very well. Migration to new versions has been painless.

We have had a few problems. We couldn't get the database functionality in the new version of OpenOffice.org to work. We could not find integrated email and calendaring that we were happy with, so we decided to stay with Microsoft Outlook for now.

If you are familiar with free and open source software you will not find my conclusions surprising. But where I used to work, my colleagues and I were largely ignorant of free and open source software. The general view was that it was inferior and unsupportable. If you are in a similar environment, it is time to consider free software. Free and open source products are certainly viable for common tasks, though there is still value in proprietary and commercial products for specialist or demanding applications. As well as saving the initial costs, we have found few support issues and painless upgrades.

Much commercial software requires significant upgrades every few years. This can be technically complicated and expensive, and provides a temptation to consider alternatives. Free and open source software tends to have more and smaller upgrades. Although this has its own management challenges, once you have adapted, you are always up-to-date. There is rarely a temptation to consider alternatives. Once you have free software, you are unlikely ever to switch back.

Next: Cheap IT turns competition upside down

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