Open source software is available for almost every conceivable application, but is it worth using?
In case you aren’t familiar, open source software is a specific type of computer software in which the source code is released in a way that allows people to study, change, and/or distribute the software for free. There generally aren’t limitations in this type of release; you’ll be free to release the software to anyone, for any reason, and free to use the software however you see fit. In many cases, the software is a communal project; it’s released in such a manner to encourage more collaboration and group support, so that no one individual or entity has exclusive access to it.
That sounds like a great arrangement on the surface, but there are a number of strengths and weaknesses to this model worth considering. For example, the Apache Struts vulnerability , a vulnerability in a popular open-source framework for creating web applications, which could allow attackers to remotely execute malicious code.—but there’s still a supportive and active community willing to use it. Depending on your needs, and how you respond to those vulnerabilities, it could be more than worth it.
But how, exactly, should you be evaluating the pros and cons of open source software?
The Benefits of Open Source Software
Let’s start by taking a look at some of the greatest advantages of open source software:
- Minimal costs. Open source almost always means free. You won’t have to pay for a license, or to download the software, nor will you have to pay a subscription fee to maintain it—even if you’re using it for business purposes. If you’re operating with a limited budget, or if you’re just trying to save money, open source software can be incredible.
- Unlimited flexibility. If you purchase software directly, you’ll likely be limited to use the software however its developers intended. But if you download and use open source software, you’ll be free to make any alterations as you see fit. Depending on your needs, you may be able to customize a platform that’s entirely your own—without conforming to anyone else’s expectations or directives.
- Total transparency. There are no secrets in the open source software world. The code is completely available for review and alteration at all times, and the developers typically make all their approaches, motivations, and changes completely public. You’ll have complete insight into why and how this product developed, which can grant you peace of mind and help you better understand how to use it in your business environment.
- Communal support. Open source software communities, like those you might find on GitHub, tend to be both enthusiastic and supportive. You’ll find forums and social communities of people talking about the challenges they face with a given piece of software, and helping each other solve problems. If you run into issues, chances are, someone passionate about this project will step up to help you resolve them.
The Weaknesses of Open Source Software
However, there are many weaknesses to keep in mind as well, including:
- Time intensiveness. If you’re trying to make open source software work for your organization, you might end up spending more time. You’ll be responsible for making changes on your own, rather than trusting someone else to handle them, and you may run into more issues than you would with proprietary software. In some cases, the costs here can nullify the advantages of the “free” nature of open source.
- Vulnerabilities. While it’s a misconception that open source software is inherently more vulnerable or less secure than its paid counterparts, there are more opportunities for vulnerabilities to develop. Because open source platforms are often the result of many people making changes and additions, there are fewer review processes in place—and vulnerabilities can be both more common and more severe.
- Lack of accountability. If you pay a company to use its software, they’ll almost immediately become agents of accountability. If something goes wrong with the software, or if it suffers a security vulnerability, they’ll be responsible for taking action. But in the open source world, the community is not obligated to help you.
So should you be using open source software? As you might suspect, the answer is: it depends. Within the category of “open source software” are thousands, if not millions of programs, which range from professionally polished to disastrously created, so it’s impossible to make a blanket recommendation. For many users in many applications, open source software is extremely advantageous. In other scenarios, it could lead to more trouble than it’s really worth.
Generally, it’s not a matter of whether or not you use open source software, but how you use open source software. Make sure you investigate your options thoroughly and prepare for the specific weaknesses inherent in whatever software you choose.