OSS: Free software – Good. Free support – Bad

Open Source Software – from the Linux operating system through a range of SQL database engines to SQL/PHP based web development /content management environments – has much to offer. There are far too many systems in Africa running unnecessarily on expensive proprietary licences that require similarly exorbitant support contracts.

Open Source is being delivered in two varieties: “community based” – free software with no support; and “professional” – free (or nearly free) software with professional support.

The argument against community based OSS is put very strongly in an article on South Africa’s ITWeb today by Muggie van Staden, MD of Obsidian Systems, a company specialising in the professional delivery of OSS. Although it focusses on South Africa I think it is directly relevant to all African governments and is worth quoting in full:

Government’s move towards open standards-based software is a topic that’s been talked about and debated for close on a decade now.

More importantly, the South African technology community has been eagerly anticipating this move since it was first suggested.

And considering the strong commitment from the public sector towards moving its environments to more open models – mandating the use of open software wherever possible – it is, quite frankly, a move that should have taken place to a far greater extent than what it has today.

Despite the time it’s taken to get to this point, I am encouraged by the kind of activity I have begun seeing in government departments with regards to open standards-based software adoption.

And it’s all because the thinking has fallen in line with international industry best practices. South Africa’s government seems to have realised that one of the most effective ways of moving towards solutions that subscribe to open standards is, in fact, to embrace and make use of open source solutions.

That’s because, although it’s true that software based on open standards does not necessarily translate into the use of open source software, by its very nature open source software subscribes to open and industry accepted standards.

But, as many government departments have discovered over the past couple of years, not just any open source solutions will do.

Government’s tendency for the past couple of years has been to focus on the adoption of free and open source software – rather than to consider the merits offered by open source solutions that are backed by large specialist companies capable of providing support, and more importantly, tailor-making solutions for government’s exact needs.

In moving towards open standards-based solutions, government has lost its way.

It has been taken in by the prospect of getting all of the software it requires in order to run its systems for nothing – and then building the capability to support it, upgrade it, patch it and make the required code changes by building skills internally and drawing on the local IT market.

But, as bitter a pill as it is to swallow, it’s time the industry and the country admits that the skills required to build, configure, run and support government’s IT systems from scratch, using raw open source code, simply aren’t present in any form of abundance.

Don’t get me wrong – there are extremely strong open source skills in the market. The problem is, there just aren’t enough of these resources for the country’s public sector to go it alone, by relying solely on local talent for its support.

Government’s thinking over the past couple of months has therefore been encouraging. The public sector, over the past year, has begun strongly considering solutions that subscribe to the dual tenets of open source and open standards compliance, but are backed and supported by large international vendors with the requisite skills to service and support these systems in-house.

Taking this approach, government will find that it’s privy to the same benefits community-based open source solutions provide, but that the business risks associated with adopting community-based open source are eliminated.

The tendency was originally to consider community-based open source solutions, since these are available at no cost. But these don’t come with any professional support services bundled into the equation – relying rather on the goodwill of the market to provide support services.

Quite frankly, this is not a tenable approach. All of the testimony needed for this exists in the fact that in more developed and well resourced international markets, where open source skills are in far more abundance, businesses and governments still choose professional open source solutions backed by a vendor that specialises in the provision and support of these solutions, over community-based open source solutions.

So the question to ask is, if companies in the international landscape haven’t managed to base their software choices on community-based solutions (because the business risk is deemed too high), why should South Africa, with far less open source skill of which to speak, be any different?

In my opinion, there is only one way for government to embrace open standards and open source solutions quickly and efficiently – and that is to make use of professional distributions of Linux and accompanying applications (whether closed or open source in nature, but still open standards compliant), that are backed by reputable companies equipped with the staff resource to adequately support and evolve these offerings.

Right now, it looks like government is seeing the light in this regard, giving me hope that although this transition has taken a great deal of time to take place, the panacea it has been striving towards might finally be close at hand.

I don’t agree that the solution to the lack of “local talent” is a reliance on “large international vendors”. Rather Africa needs more local companies, like Obsidian, to service the pulic sector.

via Keeping it professional | ITWeb.