OSS in the enterprise? Show me the money


Author: Darryl LeCount

Eric Raymond’s recent attack on a Microsoft recruiter has sharply divided the Linux community, with some applauding his bluntness and honesty, while others accused him of exaggerating his own achievements — not to mention exhibiting immature behavior. Yes, Raymond could have been a little more subtle in his reply, but when a company such as Microsoft attempts to recruit one of its most scathing critics, and an ardent supporter of competing products at that, one cannot help but feel such an answer was appropriate, given the absurdity of the circumstances.

Raymond’s answer raises a multitude of questions regarding the use of open source software (OSS) in the enterprise. Not the usual questions about security, total cost of ownership, or vendor lock-in, but rather how best to convince business leaders about the advantages that open source software such as Linux and OpenOffice.org has to offer.

The community surrounding Linux, the OSS world’s flagship product, falls largely into two categories. The first is a grassroots community that believes unfailingly in the concept of absolutely Free Software. These people have been instrumental in the rise of Linux as an alternative OS over the years, in no small part due to people like Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation.

The second category covers those who would make a business out of OSS. The executives of companies such as Novell, IBM, and Red Hat fall neatly into this category. They see more of the financial reasons to back software such as Linux, and less of the ideological reasoning.

People like Stallman were initially instrumental in bringing OSS to the forefront of IT, and when it comes to Linux, these are still the people who newcomers listen to. Although the supporters of the principle of free software made Linux what it is today, it is the business community that will make a real difference in bringing OSS into the workplace.

Most leading figures in the Free Software community know the practical advantages of OSS over closed source software. Groups like the FSF offer sound reasons for switching to OSS, whereas some of its more vocal supporters who move to Linux do so out of hatred for Microsoft rather than for sound business reasons. While some of these converts may be experienced programmers, few of them have experience with real-world business principles. Arguments such as, “you don’t know what is being sent from your computer with closed source,” or even “Microsoft is a corporate bully,” true or not, won’t wash with business executives whose eyes reside firmly on the bottom line.

Political correctness (or moral truth, depending on your viewpoint) does not hold much weight in a business environment, where the aim is to keep costs down and profits up. It is here that the commercial entities have their tuppence worth to throw in with regards to furthering Linux in the workplace. They have the knowhow in the wilderness of business and marketing and the funds to back it up. Both are necessary to create OSS applications suited to enterprise use.

So here is the dilemma: How do you take on board the experience and support of the big boys, without cutting the grassroots supporters off from the credit that they deserve?

It’s no secret that migrating from one operating system to another, whether for a server or a desktop, is not cheap. It does not matter whether it is to or from Windows, Mac OS, Linux, or some flavor of Unix. Microsoft, for one, seizes upon this fact to constantly to claim that Linux is more expensive than it actually is. It’s a good scare tactic, although some of us would call it FUD-mongering, as Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, did with his claim that Linux may violate 283 patents.

What people like Ballmer fail to mention is that the opposite — migrating from Linux to Windows, if someone would do such a thing — would cost even more. Not only would you have the aforementioned migration costs, training costs, and the need for support, you would also have the costs of the software. A particular small business might, for example, want to install Windows Server 2003 on a server, Windows XP Professional on five desktop machines, as well as Microsoft Office 2003 on each of the desktops. The costs for the software alone would be at least $2,500. That is quite a sum for a small business to spend.

While major Microsoft customers may be able to coerce Microsoft into lowering its upgrade fees by dropping the word “Linux,” most small businesses aren’t important enough to warrant a discount.

The real financial beauty of Linux lies in its long-term savings. Of course, any planned business model that utilizes investment to achieve long-term profitability is far more desirable than short-term profiteering. The best way to promote OSS is to highlight the long-term financial benefits that open source has to offer. Point out that with software like Windows, you have regular software and hardware upgrades to contend with, and both can be expensive.

With OSS, the costs for software upgrades are considerably reduced, perhaps even approaching zero. Furthermore, OSS is usually capable of working with more limited hardware, rendering regular hardware upgrades more of a luxury than a necessity.

If you want to, you can also sneak an reason or two in in favor of political correctness and ethical thinking. A recent study by the research firm Assetmetrix suggested that almost half of all business PCs were still using Windows 2000 at the beginning of 2005, and this trend does not look set to change, with small businesses reluctant to spend what it costs to upgrade to Windows Server 2003. Furthermore, Microsoft has now ended mainstream support for Windows 2000, making it even more vulnerable to hackers and viruses.