This article provides a real world perspective into why businesses move to and stick with free software. In this interview, Rob Fraser, from the premiere New Zealand open solutions company Egressive Limited (egressive.com), shares insights into why free software can benefit any business. The interview briefly covers: VPNs, spam filtration and risk mitigation, among other topics.
MR: It is my hope that this interview will help encourage other organisations to consider the benefits of free software use. So let’s begin with the reasons Egressive Ltd. decided to utilise free software for development solutions?
RF: There are a number of reasons. Free software tends to adhere to Open Standards, making integration easier. In some cases, we have found that free software is the only "glue" available to join disparate systems.
Another reason is that the lack of license costs means a low cost of entry for prototyping a system, evaluating products, or working on a proof of concept.
There is no cost penalty for adding users to a successful system, as no extra licences are required, just add the users. You get rid of all the red tape (and risk) around managing software licensing that is based on numbers of users.
Of course, another is that this software is readily available, just download and run it.
Free software also tends to be modular, reducing complexity without limiting future additions or modifications.
And, depending on the project, there can be an enormous, global knowledge base available on the web. For most of the common issues encountered on main stream free or open source products or Linux distributions there is an almost certain chance that someone else will have experienced it before, with a solution documented. If not, there are always plenty of forums, IRC channels, and mailing lists to obtain or give assistance and exchange experience.
In our experience, Linux and the many free software products that run on it are far easier to maintain, and far more flexible than many of their proprietary counterparts.
MR: Can you share some specific successes?
RF: There are obvious cost benefits. Recently, one of our clients mentioned that their migration from Novell Netware to free software alternatives had been significantly cheaper than any proprietary alternatives. The shorter implementation time also saved money on technical labour costs.
Today another major concern is spam filtering. We get a lot of positive comments from customers regarding their use of free spam filtering solutions using MailScanner, Spamassassin and ClamAV. We deploy this solution not only to customers who use a free or open source mail stack, but also to customers using a free or open source spam filter to provide a more secure front end to proprietary email systems such as Microsoft Exchange.
MR: What about Virtual Private Network installations? How can free software benefit an organisation there?
RF: Yes, we've found OpenVPN provides a very powerful SSH-based VPN solution. Not only have we enabled customers on Windows, Macintosh and Linux to securely and effortlessly access file and print, web, database and email systems, we have a customer that has a "virtual office server", where all of the staff in the organisation access a centrally hosted server from home offices using OpenVPN.
MR: What are the key advantages for using such free software solutions?
RF: Many of our customers do not want to be locked in to a single vendor. With free software they can easily change systems at a later date, and [if they purchase service agreements] they have the choice to easily change vendors if they desire, which keeps us on our toes!
"Many of our customers do not want to be locked in to a single vendor"
When it comes to entry costs and future growth, the systems can be expanded without incurring licensing costs. And the solutions tend to be operating system agnostic. It doesn't matter if the end-users are on Windows, Macintosh or Linux, or if they are using Thunderbird or Microsoft Outlook; many free or open source products provide cross platform support.
MR: Okay Rob, there are probably some negatives to switching. Share some of the potential pitfalls for using free or open source software?
RF: I would say that there is nothing magical or unusual about free software. As with any IT implementation, it's important to follow good practices by planning the project, specifying the requirements, evaluating potential solutions, identifying risks, and involving stakeholders and end users.
I would also add that it is beneficial to have testing plans and to ensure they are implemented. We avoid "big bang" rollouts if possible, and prefer to implement in managed stages for larger projects.
Training is important, both for the staff that will use the systems, and for the staff that will install and maintain the systems.
MR: What recommendations do you have for others evaluating free software?
RF: Look at some of the documentation coming out supporting free or open source from places like the European Commission's Directorate General for Enterprise and Industry, showing long term cost savings through the use of free software. Although, there will naturally be a cost of change.
I recommend that they also review the success stories, because there are plenty of organisations in New Zealand using free or open source, as well as overseas. New Zealand has plenty of companies able to support free or open source too, including the large IT manufacturers and resellers.
"It’s important that businesses evaluate free software for themselves in their context"
Finally, it's important that businesses evaluate free software for themselves in their context. Since cost of entry is very low [limited often to basic service fees], it is reasonable to set up a proof of concept somewhere in the organisation. They will be impressed with the cost savings and productivity increases.
MR: Thank you Rob. As with numerous other open solutions and free software driven companies, Egressive Ltd. gains substantive benefits by using free software on the Linux platform.
For more information regarding business use of Linux and related software, you may also benefit from my article Software development benefits".