On preferring open-source software

I spent most of last week up in Edinburgh, for the Open Edge conference on open-source software in libraries, attended mostly by academic librarians and their technical people. It was an interesting time, and I met a lot of interesting people. At the risk of overusing the word “interesting”, it was also of interest to see how widespread the deployment of “next-generation OPACs” like VuFind and Blacklight has become. Since both of these use Solr as their back-end database, their progressive adoption in libraries has helped to drive that of Solr, which is part of why we recently added support for Solr to our own protocol toolkit.

One reason I went to Open Edge was to give my own talk on Metasearching and local indexes: making it Just Work when two worlds collide. I got to present how our thinking about resource discovery is evolving, and our growing conviction that it’s unnecessary to insist on either metasearching or harvesting data into a big central index and searching that. We can and should (and indeed we do, for some of our customers) do both, and integrate them seamlessly. (The slides from my talk are freely available; The Open Edge organisers have also made available a video consisting of an audio recording of my talk, with the slides shown in order – very effective.)

Open Edge also gave me a strong sense that the world is changing. As recently as two or three years ago, conferences about open-source software had the tenor of “Oh, please recognise that open-source is a valid model, don’t write us off as a bunch of hobbyists”. Now that war is largely won, and it’s universally recognised, at least by the kinds of people who come to Open Edge, that open-source software is a mainstream option rather than some kind of communist weirdo alternative.

Back in the Bad Old Days (by which I guess I mean 2008), meetings like Open Edge felt very slightly clandestine … as though we were meeting in secret, or at least off on our own somewhere, because the Big Boys – the proprietary vendors – wouldn’t let us join in any reindeer games. Open-sourcers were tolerated at big events like ALA, where we could get lost in the crowd, but if we wanted to give presentations and suchlike then matters might be different. Three years on, everything is very, very different.

So …

It was against that backdrop that I listened to Ross Gardler’s talk, the last one on the final day of the conference: an introduction to discussion on the subject “Steps to building capacity in the library community”. Ross is Service Manager for JISC’s OSS Watch, Vice-President of Community Development at the Apache Software Foundation, and the organiser of the TransferSummit conference – all in all, someone with fingers on a lot of pulses, and with as much idea as anyone of which way the wind is blowing. Every two years, OSS Watch takes a survey of attitudes to open-source software in UK Higher Education and Further Education. Ross presented some findings from the most recent, as yet unpublished, 2010 survey, and compared them with those in the 2008 survey.

(In the UK, Higher Education, or HE, means universities; and Further Education, or FE, means more vocational training past the usual school-leaving age.)

The most striking part of the survey for me was the bit about policies towards software procurement: the breakdown by percentage of how many HE and FE institutions have the following policies with respect to open-source software (OSS):

  • OSS is not mentioned
  • Policy of not using OSS
  • Explicitly considers OSS
  • OSS is the preferred option

There were two “Wait, what?” moments here for me. The first one was that there even is a “Policy of not using OSS”. But it’s there, and its percentages, though low, are non-zero. In 2006, 4% of HE and 2% of FE institutions surveyed said that they had formal policy in place not to use open-source software.

Just think about that for a moment. Someone, somewhere, came up with the idea that if your vendor gives you free access to the source code and does not charge you a licence fee, then that makes it a worse deal. In fact, not just a worse deal, but so bad a deal that it won’t even be considered. You can just imagine open-source vendors/integrators talking to the administrators:

Vendor: … And we don’t charge a licence fee, and we’ll give you the source code in case you want to make local customisations.

Administrator: Certainly not! We reject your terrible offer.

Vendor: All right, then. We’ll charge you £50,000 per year, and we won’t give you the source code.

Administrator: You’ve got yourself a deal!

It hurts, doesn’t it?

So, anyway. That was the first of my two “Wait, what?” moments. The second was a comment that Ross himself made as he was discussing these figures. The flip side of the stats that I found so incredible is that in 2006, 7% of FE institutions said that “OSS is the preferred option”, and Ross’s comment was something along the lines that he thought that was just as wrong as the converse.

Well, usually when I hear something like this, I speak up immediately, especially in a session like this Open Edge one where we’d been explicitly invited to chip in. But instead I sat there, sort of paralysed, gazing into the middle distance. I struggled to get my brain back onto the tracks, having had it knocked sideways by such a tremendous whack of (let me be frank) irrationality.

The reality is, OSS is simply not all that controversial anymore. The Open Source Initiative has been up and running for 13 years (and the Free Software Foundation for more than a quarter of a century). OSS technologies are everywhere around us. The pros and cons of the different models are well understood. Mostly, for us, we have found that it allows us to communicate freely with a large community of developers while also working with an incredible range of commercial and public organizations. It would be nice to see people move past both the hype and the irrational fear, and recognize that this is an approach to collaboration that is here to stay, even if it isn’t right for everyone.

As my friend Matt Wedel likes to say, we’re all living in the future now. Let’s not pretend we’re still shackled by past practices. Onward!

4 Comments

Not better by default

I think you misrepresent my point here. A policy that says "we prefer open source over closed source regardless of it's suitability" is just as flawed as one that prefers closed over open automatically.

To claim a product is better than it's competition simply because of it's licence is naive and dangerous.

I want to see policies that evaluate all potential solutions and select the most appropriate for each individual case. It's true that a good open source solution trumps an equivalently good closed source one, but two solutions are never so closely matched that they are equivalent in very way except license.

Furthermore, not all open source is equal. Some is open in license only. Some is open in both license and development model. Some is open core, some is permissive whilst some is copyleft. And so on.

We want people to understand the strengths and weaknesses of all options. A policy that says open source is always better is not going to help in this objective - one that says we will consider open source alongside closed will.

Better unless proven otherwise

Come on, Ross, you know I wasn't claiming that every piece of open source software is better than every piece of proprietary software. What I was claiming, and will stand by until someone comes up with some actual evidence to the contrary, is that the openness of source-code is a significant plus-point for many, many reasons, so that a proprietary competitor needs to be significantly better in other respects in order to compete equally.

No doubt there are proprietary programs for which this is true -- for example, friends who are graphics professionals tell me that PhotoShop is much more powerful than the GIMP. But that's the point: to keep competing, it has to be much more powerful than its open alternative.

Policy of not using OSS

my previous employer and one of the UK's larger FE providers had an explicit policy of not using OSS. When I queried why this was with a member of the IT department i was told "we are not using any software that does not come with support no matter how good it might be!" So apparently OSS has no support..........