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Highs and lows of open source

Free software typically is produced using the open source model, meaning that the source code is publicly accessible. Andrew J Baltazar tells more.

business Updated: Nov 15, 2007 19:04 IST
Andrew J Baltazar

Purchasing a computer is an enormous expense in itself. Adding software to your new machine will drain your wallet even further. Computer users often shell out thousands of rupees for commercial applications like Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop, but comparable programs are available for free download on the Internet.

And it’s legal, no strings attached. Free software typically is produced using the open source model, meaning that the source code - the core recipe of a computer program - is publicly accessible. Moreover, anyone can volunteer to help build those programs. And improve upon them.

There is a free open source software (FOSS) equivalent to many of the commercial offerings, from Web browsers to photo editors to document format converters, says Sudev Barar, member of the Indian Linux Users Group.

“Open source works, it delivers what you want and it’s free,” says Barar, who also heads Nuchem Limited, a Faridabad-based chemical engineering company that uses FOSS tools to run its computers.

Many small businesses across India have transitioned to FOSS, according to Raju Mathur, head at Kandalaya, an open source consulting firm named after the Sanskrit word for ‘abundance.’

A subscription to Oracle’s customer relations management suite Siebel CRM On Demand starts at $70 per month for each user. Compare that to SugarCRM, which offers much of the same functionality as Siebel. Sugar comes in a commercial version ranging from $20 to $75 per user per month, as well as an open source version – which comes free. The idea is for small businesses to try Sugar Open Source and modify it as they wish. Later, they could upgrade to the commercial version, which provides additional support, documentation and features.

One downside to installing FOSS is that companies may have to invest in software configuration and training, Barar said. To have a programmer add a new feature to SugarCRM, for instance, would be around Rs 30,000. Two days of training employees on how to use a specific open source program would set you back another Rs. 20,000.

Though costs could add up initially, businesses tend to spend less after two to three years, as they no longer have to renew pricey commercial licences on a yearly basis, said Kandalaya’s Mathur.

Prithvi Pal Singh, IT manager at the Delhi-based OM Logistics, said his company has been able to cut back on expenses in the seven years since it began using FOSS. Running Windows would have meant buying licences for each computer for more than Rs. 5000 each. On top of that, the company would have had to purchase productivity tools, anti-virus and other security software. The combined cost of even just the basic applications would have been upwards of Rs 25,000 per desktop.

Similarly, Nuchem Limited, Barar’s company, saves around Rs 5 lakh each year by running FOSS applications on each of its 120 to 150 terminals.

In addition to reducing expenses, most FOSS tools are easy to install and use, Barar said. For example, getting the entire Open Office suite is as simple as downloading it from the openoffice.org Web site Still, Microsoft argues its Windows software is more secure than open source alternatives because security updates and bug fixes for Windows are released more frequently than those for Linux. According to research by Secunia, a Demark-based vulnerability intelligence provider, Microsoft Windows Server 2003 had less than half the software vulnerabilities compared with Red Hat Enterprise Linux. On the other side, open source advocates claim that Linux has the security edge because a program’s code can be custom tailored to fit special security needs.

State governments have been encouraging the adoption of open source by households and businesses, said Deepak Pathak, Professor and Head at the Indian Institute of Technology’s Kanwal Rekhi School of Information Technology. They also have called for the formation of more open source communities like the Indian Linux Users Group to help drive the process. India’s market share of open source is negligible compared with commercial software. “The progress might seem small in terms of numbers,” Pathak said. “But if we realize that five years ago most people didn’t even bother with open source, then I think it’s a significant step.”