Increasingly, businesses are turning to open source software to serve their internal needs and/or serve as components for bigger projects. There are many benefits to using open source software, and there are more open source options than ever before. But do these benefits outweigh the disadvantages? And if so, how should you approach open source software?
The Big Picture
Open source software has become such a popular model, and so available, that to refuse to use open source code altogether would be highly unusual. Instead of considering whether or not to use open source software overall, you should be considering which types of open source software to use, and for which projects. You’ll also need to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of open source, and instate plans to make up for them; for example, you’ll need an open source security strategy to ensure your business is never affected by the security vulnerabilities inherent in your open source components of choice. Depending on what kind of approach you’re using, you’ll also need a solid container security strategy in place—and security practices embedded throughout your organization as well.
Advantages of Open Source Software
Let’s recount some of the best advantages of open source software:
- Overall costs. Open source software is free, which is the perk that attracts most business owners and team leaders to it in the first place. You can use the software however you want, even in a business environment, without paying to use it or facing fees later on. There are some other cost-related considerations to bear in mind; for example, you’ll need to spend more time and effort getting it to work properly and securely in your projects. However, most of the time, you’ll save more money than you spend.
- Flexibility. Open source projects typically grant you access to the source code, giving you unlimited power to tweak it as you see fit. Use it in whatever context you want. Update it with some extra features. Create an entirely different project fork for your own needs. You have practically unlimited flexibility here, so take advantage of it.
- Community support. One of the best advantages of open source software is that it’s usually supported by an entire community. The original developers, plus any other developers using the component, can collaborate on making the component better. This often means the software evolves to become better over time; it also means if you encounter a problem or have a question, there’s probably someone in the community who can answer it or solve it.
- Scannability. The collaborative and transparent nature of open source software also means it’s easily scannable. You can use an automated scanning tool to detect potential vulnerabilities, keeping your organization secure as conveniently as possible.
Disadvantages of Open Source Software
However, there are also some disadvantages to using open source software:
- Security. The scannability and collaborative community surrounding open source software grants it some advantages when it comes to security, but there are also some disadvantages to keep in mind. If you’re using multiple open source components in the context of a larger project, even a single security vulnerability in one of those components could be responsible for jeopardizing the entire project. Accordingly, if you’re using open source components (especially if you’re using multiple components), it’s important to have additional security measures in place.
- Community dependence. While the helpful community surrounding open source software is a good thing, there’s no guarantee they’re going to stick around forever, or that their numbers will be robust enough to help you with your situation. If you have a question that no one can answer, or if the software has become “orphaned,” or abandoned by its initial creators, there isn’t much you can do. You’ll need to figure out the problem on your own or stop using the component. Similarly, there’s no hotline to call, and no dedicated customer support to rely on; instead, if you have an issue, you’ll usually have to post a question on an online forum and hope that someone takes the time out of their day to answer it.
- Long-term management. Finally, the long-term management of open source components can be tricky. New updates emerge for open source components frequently, which means you’ll need to update those components on a regular (preferably automatic basis). But if your components have multiple direct and indirect dependencies, each update could potentially influence how they work together. In some cases, this can result in a messy, hard-to-manage project that costs far more time and money than originally planned.
The Bottom Line
Most businesses can benefit from incorporating open source software, or at least individual open source components, into their projects and workflows. However, open source isn’t a perfect approach, and it demands more attention and proactive work on the part of the user. Make sure you understand the strengths and weaknesses of open source before committing to any projects.