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South Africa: Open Sesame: It's Time for Open Source Software


Johannesburg — In 1998 the open source campaign was launched as part of an effort to support the concept of "free software" on the grounds of reliability, cost and strategic business risk. Even though it isn't free but distributed under licences GPL, LGPL, BSD and MIT, keep in mind that royalties are still contributing but not always in terms of money. Since then, open source software has come of age and is now broadly accepted by software producers and consumers as a viable alternative.

Inus Gouws, a senior information management (IM) consultant at Computer Associates (Africa), charts the progress of the open source concept.

Open source software programs are those whose licences give users the freedom to run the programs for any purpose, to study and modify the programs, and to redistribute copies of either the original or modified programs without having to pay royalties to previous developers.

It is important not to confuse open source software with "non-commercial" software. Open source must be usable for business purposes. Antonyms of open source include "closed" and "proprietary".

Initially linked to the hacker community, the idea of free software has only recently become widely accepted by the corporate market. This is due almost entirely to the efforts of the supporters of free software worldwide and their Open Source Initiative (OSI) launched in 1998.

The OSI is a non-profit organisation whose mission is to develop branding programmes designed to attract software vendors and users to the fold.

It has racked up some remarkable successes. Most notably, it has almost turned around the negative image associated with "free software" in the past.

Today, 'open source' is respected worldwide. Initially tied to the Linux kernel, there are now many brands and organisations associated with open source including RedHat Linux and a number of Unix and even Windows derivatives and variants.

Many "blue chip" software producers are seeking certification for new open source products and software licences. The list includes Netscape, Corel, IBM, Novell and Computer Associates - all of which have embraced the open source concept and the identity and development model that goes with it.

Open source projects are proliferating all the time. Here are a few:

* Apache - Web server development

* Samba - supports interoperability with Windows clients by acting as a Windows file and print server

* GNOME and KDE - desktop environment

* The GIMP - bitmapped image editor

* MySQL, PostgreSQL - databases

* PHP - hypertext pre-processor used for Web development

* Mailman - mailing list manager

* Xfree86 - graphics infrastructure that implements X Windows

* Bind - domain naming service

* GNU Compiler Collection - compilation tools for C, C++ and other languages

* Perl, Python - programming/scripting languages

* Mozilla - Web browser and e-mail client

* - office suite, including word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software

There are many more in alpha or beta stages.

Xhead =The basic idea

The basic idea behind open source is very simple: when programmers can read, redistribute and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves more rapidly.

People from a wide range of organisations - even private individuals - can improve it, adapt it and fix bugs. This can happen at a speed that, compared to the slow pace of traditional, proprietary software development, seems astonishing.

In the proprietary or closed model, only a few programmers can see the source code and all others associated with the software - users included - must blindly follow their lead.

For 20 years the open source idea has been building momentum in the technical cultures that built the Internet and the World Wide Web. Now it has matured to the point where it is finally breaking into the commercial world.

Commercial success

Open source supporters claim that when a company opts for a proprietary technology, its puts the vendor of this technology in charge of many areas of its operation that it should retain control over. These include cost, security, stability, performance and scalability.

This lesson is being learned. Open source software, led by Linux, is growing in acceptance in leaps and bounds.

For example, research shows that found that Linux is the number two operating system for Web servers. It has been constantly gaining market share in this sector since 1999. According to reports, Linux now leads all opposition in Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland.

Well-known Web sites using open source software include Google (Linux) and Yahoo (FreeBSD, a Unix variant).

The success of open source software is illustrated by a study published in October 2002 by the analyst company, the Butler Group, which concluded that by 2009, Linux will have penetrated the server operating system market from file and print servers through to the mainframe.

Interestingly, users in Japan are among the most prolific, according to a white paper published this year (2003) by the Impress Organisation. It states that there is "widespread use and support for Linux; overall use of Linux jumped from 35.5% in 2001 to 64.3% in 2002 of Japanese corporations, and Linux was the most popular platform for small projects" [in 2002].

In Europe, the FLOSS (Free and Open Source Software) study, published in 2002, found that 43.7% of German, 31.5% of British and 17.7% of Swedish companies reported using open source software.

Commercial acceptance of open source software probably reached a high point in 2003 when Microsoft publicly acknowledged Linux as a threat.

Security: The final frontier

Today, security has a big role to play in the selection of any solution - hardware or software. It certainly should play an important part in operating system selection. How does open source software rate? One of the more interesting barometers suggested by open source pundits is to study hacked or defaced Web sites and identify their server operating systems.

The advantage of this measure is that, unlike other kinds of security break-ins that are often not reported by companies for public relations reasons, it is very difficult for victims to hide the fact that their home page has been successfully attacked.

Research shows that from a percentage perspective, very few Linux sites are defaced when compared to sites running proprietary operating systems.

This is supported by an Evans Data Corp survey of more then 400 Linux developers. It found that Linux systems are relatively immune from attacks from outsiders. Even though computer attacks have almost doubled annually since 1988, 78% of the survey respondents never experienced an unwanted intrusion and 94% have operated virus-free.

The survey reports that Linux "doesn't get broken into very often and is even less frequently targeted by viruses".

The final word goes to Jeff Child (Evans' Linux analyst) who maintains that it's much harder to hack a knowledgeable owner's system (and most Linux developers have hands-on, technical knowledge) and that because there are fewer desktop Linux systems there are fewer viruses being created.

His report states: "More than 84% of Linux developers believe that Linux is inherently more secure than software not created in an open source environment." Enough said.

Inus Gouws is Senior Information Management Consultant, Computer Associates Africa

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