The Problem With Open Source

June 2, 2008

I’ve got a keen interest in open source. There’s a lot of good stuff out there. The technology is great and you can generally explain away the usual FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) myths surrounding open source. So what’s the problem? The problem is, no one is “selling” open source.


When I say “no one is selling open source” I’m generalising a bit. I know there are plenty of open source organisations with well staffed sales teams. But for each one of those, there’s countless others who have no sales function at all.

In most organisations, software enters the company in one of two ways. Firstly, through the business – vendors schmooze line of business managers over a long lunch, secure the order and the install disk is lobbed into the IT Department with instructions to “make it work”. The second entry point is through IT. The IT Department gathers business requirements, evaluates possible solutions and finally recommends one to the business.

I don’t think open source is particularly well positioned for either one of these entry points.

Entry through the business is unlikely because most business people don’t know what open source is – let alone what products are out there. To make matters worse, most of the information you find on the web sites of various open source initiatives is pitched at tech-savvy folk. It’s all just too confusing for the average business user.

Entry through IT is more promising but also problematic. The techies (e.g. developers, DBAs, network administrators etc) probably have a good understanding of the open source landscape but unfortunately they are not good sales people – they generally struggle to sell ideas even to IT management (never mind the rest of the business). IT managers, on the other hand, are more business savvy and could sell open source to the business – but there’s very little incentive for them to do so. In most organisations software is just another line item in the costings for a project. If IT recommends open source then there is little upside (aside from a bit of kudos) but huge downside if something goes wrong. Business gets all the benefits, IT gets all the risk. Faced with this dilemma, what will IT recommend: something from IBM or something open source?

I think Enterprise Architects have a key role to play in promoting open source. If you’re doing your job, you should have a good idea of what is out there. What’s more, you’re in the privileged position of being on the border of business and IT, giving you a unique opportunity to promote open source to both. Hopefully bringing the two sides together – allowing both risks and rewards of adopting open source to be shared.