Open Source: The Right Choice?

Business owners and managers are often on the lookout for tools that will simplify workloads or automate repetitive tasks. Sometimes, the answer may seem to lie in open source software, but how do you decide which open source tools are appropriate to use?

I’m not afraid to admit that even here at Incognito we use some forms of open source software. For example, some of the code libraries and tools that we use to develop our solutions are open source. Here’s a checklist that I use when considering whether or not an open source tool is the right fit:

1. The community working on the software

How many people are working on the project? This is so important yet often overlooked. If the community is large, with hundreds of developers, then the project is probably going to enjoy a strong future and evolve as the industry evolves. Conversely, a project managed by only one or two people may seem like a good choice this afternoon, but what will you do if the developers lack resources or interest in taking the project further? If these people decide to leave the development to others or move on after an initial accomplishment, then the project will go stagnant and leave your future in peril.

2. The support

Support simply cannot be overlooked. How many people are actually using the software and how do developers respond to requests for bug fixes or new features? If few use this project, you may not find many people willing to work with you or help out with ideas or support. If you encounter a problem at 2am and the developer is on holidays, will he answer his email? There is no incentive for the developer to pick up the phone and help you, other than his intrinsic satisfaction to help a stranger. How would your subscribers feel about this? You must be confident that the software you choose won’t compromise your subscribers’ quality of experience.

3. How critical is this piece of software?

If the software sits between you and your subscribers, there’s a good chance that you’ll feel more at ease knowing that your software provider is contractually bound to solve issues and respond to ongoing business requests in a timely manner. That contract gives you some leverage to solve urgent issues and the goal should always be to shorten the time it takes to solve problems. Shortening this time frame reduces customer churn – and that keeps you in business.

Personally, I believe there is one category of software that is perfect for open source: the tools category. These tools are often developed by individuals working for MSOs and released in the public domain. Tools are “nice to have” pieces of software that do not negatively affect daily operations. These tools may simplify your life but if the developers vanished it would not negatively affect your business.

Although we do sometimes use open source software at Incognito, we mainly use projects that have thousands of developers, so we know they have a safe future. Other projects that we benefit from are very well supported and over the years we have built up our own skills internally to allow us to create our own fixes and add new features as needed. These features are then contributed back into the community for someone else to use.

So use open source when you think it fits your business, but remember that your subscribers do not care where you get your software. They care about their service and making sure you are around for a long time.