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Open Source For Beginners

by Robert Hunter, Dashboard InsightWednesday, September 1, 2010

(Copy Editor Note: Although "open source software" is a compound adjective and should be hyphenated as "open-source software," we're going to stick with the usual industry style convention and keep the hyphen in the drawer.  And yes, we're aware that we do this for other phrases as well.)

September is open source month at Dashboard Insight and there are plans afoot to publish a variety of interesting articles related to the theme.  And while we expect to receive a number of well-researched treatises related to the topic, it occurs to us that not every reader knows what open source is all about.  So to help out, I'll fill this space with the absolute basics of open source software (OSS) and why it's of interest to the business intelligence community.

To start, some may not know that traditional PC software exists as code that's subject to international copyright agreements.  Like writing a book, the intellectual property (the words or "content" of the book) belongs to the writer/creator or someone else with whom they have an agreement (e.g., a publisher or the writer's employer).  Copyright laws ensure content cannot be copied legally unless the rights holder gives permission or receives payment; failure to do so can result in an infringement  civil suit or criminal prosecution in more extreme cases.  And while there are exceptions to the laws in terms of academic activities and "fair use" by the media, in general, all industrial nations abide by copyright treaties.

Commercial software is protected from copying in a similar way: the source code is owned by its writer/creator (or his/her employer or other rights holder) and if you want a copy of it, you need to gain permission or pay for a license.  That's simply the law - but it's also a system that fosters software development/innovation, creates employment and wealth, and has given us operating systems and applications that have served us well for decades.  Companies like IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and numerous others use copyright to control the use, modification and duplication of their products.

In the early 1980s, a new software delivery model started evolving, something radically different - in fact, some claim it's not a model at all but rather a tactic.  A group of developers created the "free software movement" as a social and political force, with the goal of making software available to all for free.  They advocated that source code should be copied, studied, changed and distributed - all without payment.  Eventually, countless developers would donate their time and expertise in providing free software to the masses.  This philosophy would eventually become part of several similar movements, including "open source," "free and open source" (FOSS) and "software libre."  (Despite differences among the various free-software groups, "open source" has become an umbrella term for this software form, at least for the purpose of this article.)

It should be noted that this new model usually does not put source code into the public domain - which would remove it from the reach of copyright laws - the code typically exists with some form of licensing attached to maintain conditions on the software.  Whether it was designated with a duplication-encouraged "copyleft" authorization or part of the GNU Project (which began in 1984 as a large, collaborative free-software project) or one of several other licensing structures, these conditions usually grant users the freedom to freely change and distribute the code.

Over the years, many widely popular software solutions have started as - or later became - open source packages, including Linux (operating system), GNOME (desktop), OpenOffice (office tools), Apache (web server), Firefox (browser), Thunderbird (e-mail and news) and countless other applications, utilities and games.  These products are reliable and of high quality because there is a community of thousands of independent developers constantly working to improve, test and fix software defects - all on an ongoing basis.

End users delight in their ability to use and reproduce software without payment, digital locks, limited features or fear of infringement prosecution, all of which has helped to create an enthusiastic and loyal fan base.  These benefits are enjoyed by businesses as well, including substantial cost-savings for larger organizations deploying many free open source applications that would otherwise be handled by traditional commercial software.

For the business intelligence community - interested in reporting, dashboarding or data analysis/mining/exploration/integration - a variety of open source solutions are offered by OpenBI, Jaspersoft, Pentaho and many others.  (William Laurent has a detailed article on the subject published here, while Lyndsay Wise explains open source expansion into the BI mainstream here.)

In the last few years, open source software has been gaining traction with consumers and its market is growing.  So the first question that often comes to mind for business professionals is: "How does free software actually make money?"  Well, depending on how it's licensed, some open source code is repackaged and sold like any other software product.  And even if it remains free, many organizations sell value-added support, training, add-ons and customization services related to an open source application.  Furthermore, some companies give away a free copy of a product but sell an enhanced "enterprise" version with additional functionality.

According to industry analysts at International Data Corporation (IDC), "worldwide revenue from open source software will grow at a 22.4 percent compound annual growth rate to reach $8.1 billion by 2013."*  With that much money coming in, open source may have taken an odd path from its radical beginnings.  But these days, the basic principal of free software for all is clearly still alive and well and meeting the needs of users who like software but don't like paying for it!

About the Author

Rob Hunter works as a software copywriter by day and as a Dashboard Insight editor by night (when he’s not playing his upright bass).


* Source: IDC press release, July 29, 2009

(Copyright 2010 - Dashboard Insight - All rights reserved.)

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