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The Gift Of Open Source Software

That's right, folks. Step right up and get your free software. Do you need a better Web server? How about a mail server? Or maybe you need a good database program for your back office.

If you recognize any of those as your problem, then step right up, because we've got the answer, and more. And they're all free. That's right -- no license fees, no complicated per-seat charges, no more haggling with the salesman for your best deal. And now, for a limited time only...

Sound too good to be true? Usually, when something sounds too good, it is too good, to be true. But in this case, it actually is true. You can get your software from the open source movement, and it's all free of licensing fees. (For more, see, "Why Freeware Is A Solution, Not A Problem.")

There are costs, to be sure. There's the cost of supporting the software, and there are the costs of training your staff in how to use and how to support the software. But you'd have to pay those anyway. So you really can come out a winner by considering some open source software.

And you'll find that there are programs available for download that address the most common needs of IT folks who are running lots of servers in their enterprises. And the software runs on Linux, other Unix variants, and on Windows as well. Take a look at Sourceforge.net to see the kinds of programs that are available.

In fact, there are so many classes of software, and so many different software projects available, that some see the movement in open source software as akin to a new business model. "It's a business-model change," opines Bernard Golden, CEO of Navica Inc., a systems integrator in San Carlos, Calif., "like the change from a department store to Walmart."

Golden's company offers many different services, some connected with open-source software. He'll help an IT organization determine if open-source software is right for them, and what measures the organization should take to make sure that the adopting an open-source solution will be smooth and seamless.

"Can you save money?" he asks. "Absolutely. Our clients save a minimum of 25 per cent on their software."

He cites one company that he's worked with that provides content to Web users. The company was making roughly $25 million per year, and wanted to upgrade its software, which was based on WebLogic. It would cost $500,000 to upgrade the software and $100,000 per year for purchased support. "That's a lot of money for a company that size," Golden observes.

Instead, they went with open-source software, spend $0 for license fees, and only $50,000 per year for purchased support. considerable savings.

And in that little vignette you see what the word free really means, in the world of open-source software. You still have to install the software, but before that you have to test it to see that it will do the job for you. If you buy commercial software, you get to buy one license to set up the test. With open-source software, just download another copy. But you still have the test expense, and you'll have to train people on the software. Then you have to install it, and support it. For support, you can use the services of a third party, or do it yourself. Either way, it's a cost.

From Golden's vantage point, support is actually better, in many cases, with open-source software than with commercial software. That's because the open-source community, run largely by volunteers, operates many forums and discussion groups where participants help one another with support and maintenance issues. Compare that with trying to get through to a vendor's service desk, and you may change your mind about support.

Downsides? There are some, to be sure, Golden admits. "First is the fit and finish of the product. Your people will have to be a little more savvy on the product, to make sure it works the way you want. Secondly, "It's a different world and business model. Commercial software is a bundled product, but open source is an unbundled world. You have to build your own bundle. If you're a program manager, you have to put support and other resources into your plan. You have to upgrade your processes to seek out resources that you didn't need before."

So for communications programs, e-mail, Web services, Java applications, Windows server apps, even desktop programs, you may want to consider the open-source community. It won't cost you nothing, but it will cost you less, and you may find that it's a better alternative to costly commercial software.

Step right up. Free, folks, Free.

David Gabel has been testing and writing about computers for more than 25 years.