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Nandor Tanczos – The Open Source Revolution

28 june 2006

Nandor Tanczos – The Open Source revolution

At one level, the open-source revolution has been won. When you use a Nokia phone, trade on eBay or do a Google search you're using open-source technology. Open-source pioneers such as Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, fiercely believed in the need to liberate cyberspace from the grip of proprietary vendors such as Unix and Microsoft.

They enabled Swedish student Linus Torvalds to prove - with the invention of the Linux operating system - their basic point, that computer codes and standards that are freely used, modified and re-distributed create more robust and flexible solutions than those emanating from proprietary vendors.

To me, open source has been a perfect illustration of the Green Party belief that an open, co-operative decision path makes the most ethical, economic and environmental sense.

But can open source also render New Zealand firms more profitable? Yes, provided we're looking at this solely through the crude cost slashing lens. True, there are short-term savings from escaping certain forms of licensing fees and mandatory upgrades. However, overseas experience indicates that the economic benefits mainly accrue from the paradigm shift involved - open source fosters a better sense of the tasks facing the firm, while offering more flexible and enduring solutions.

Those savings are substantial. Earlier this year, international consulting firm Optaros reported that US companies with US$1 billion-plus revenue saved US$3.4 million on average during 2004 by using open source, medium-sized firms saved US$1.5 million, while small companies making less than US$50 million saved about US$500,000 on average.

Less cosmically, the question is: Why should a business invest in a multi-million dollar mainframe and pay for the support agreements around several proprietary systems? Employing one team to support a Linux operating system with six or eight Intel boxes running off it could cost about $80,000 each - and still provide a business with as much if not more processing power.

True, there is no free lunch. Chances are, a business may still have a support agreement for Red Hat or SUSE or for whatever brand of Linux it wishes to deploy. But the cost savings mainly lie in having one support team looking after Linux rather than paying for multiple operating systems, as well as in having applications that are completely portable and upgradeable.

This revolution is being won. By reliable estimates 15 to 20 per cent of the computing done in New Zealand enterprises utilises some form of open source, and much is being driven in-house, by work groups rather than by top management.

So what are the residual hurdles? There is the perception of legal risks. Firms do need to be aware of what can and can't be done under the end-user license agreements for the open-source software. Even the general public license created by Stallman - which grants any user the right to copy, modify and redistribute programmes and source code from developers that have chosen to license their work under it - requires governance of the chopped up and redistributed bits of code. With experience though, those legal concerns are receding.

Inertia remains the proprietary vendor's best friend. Firms feel secure about being locked into a support deal with a proprietary vendor, and they take all the downsides that go with that captivity as the price to pay.

But there are support systems out there - from IBM to the Slashdot community - and because a firm is deploying open codes and standards, the fix-it solution is usually easier and cheaper to achieve.
There's another reason to champion open source. Government is about devising enduring solutions and making them openly accessible through time. Access by the public to records of governance _ and by Government to its own administrative history _ should not be at the whim of a proprietary vendor with the market power to render the tools of access extinct by boardroom decree.

Here, the portability and flexibility of Linux _ and the reliability of offerings such as Apache, Mozilla,, MySQL, SUSE and Red Hat _ provides a viable alternative. The fact the paper trail with open source is so
much more transparent renders the Government legacy more sustainable.

From Australia to Germany to Israel to China, central and local governments are actively promoting the switch to open-source technology and are effectively closing the door on the Microsoft business model. In Asia, there is a reluctance to be tied to US vendor monopolies.

Can Government do more to foster private-sector confidence in open-source processes? Already, Inland Revenue, some district health boards and education outlets are moving to embrace this technology, which should boost confidence in it. An attitude shift is required. Freedom can be just another word for something left to choose, and open source delivers its benefits by maximising those choices. Sometimes this happens through allied social movements such as Creative Commons. At other times it is through giving firms the opportunity to actively configure their own solutions to the needs that they define.


Scoop note - this opinion piece from Green MP Nandor Tanczos originally ran in the NZ Herald. Nandor Tanczos is the Green Party's spokesman for technology and telecommunications and is an advocate of open-source software.


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