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Open source software: Ready for Credit Union Primetime?

by Tom DeSot
CUES Tech Port,LLC
March 6, 2000
© 2000 CUES Tech Port,LLC

Unless you have been living in the dark reaches of Antarctica, it's been hard for you to escape the news; the open source movement is here.

With the movement comes all of the questions that Credit Union IS Managers have to ask themselves, such as "What is open source software?" "What can it do for me in the enterprise?" and "Should I use open source?". I'd like to try to answer these questions.

To answer the question of what is open source software, you need look no further than the OpenBSD website. OpenBSD is an operating system maintained by Theo de Raadt and numerous other developers who strive to make a proactively secure operating system.

The source code is open, hence the name (open source) which allows any user to modify the operating system to increase functionality, fix flaws or port the operating system to other platforms (OpenBSD will presently operate on Intel, Sparc, Alpha, Amiga, HP300 and MAC68k). Additionally, because of the openness of the source code, users can write their own programs, build firewalls and routers and do many things that you wouldn't normally be able to do with commercial proprietary packages.

What can open source do for you in the enterprise? What do you need done? One of the strongest attractions to open source software, besides the fact that it is most often free, is the versatility that it allows you to draw on to meet your needs. Along with those uses mentioned in the paragraph above, you can do some or all of the following:

As you can see, the options are almost endless, and as the open source movement grows, the functionality is sure to increase. Additionally, open source software will often run on machines that are no longer robust enough to run the latest commercial software. Remember those old 486's you were going to toss? Don't do it just yet.

This leads us to the final question, should you use open source? Now some would say that this question is as personal as what color of shoes you wear in the morning. However, I think it's more in line with determining what your corporate needs are, and then identifying if you have the expertise in-house to work with the software. As an example, say you have a need for a print server for a secretary workgroup, you could:

A) Purchase a commercial proprietary package to utilize
B) Purchase a printer with a built in network card and print server
C) Utilize an old 486 with 8 Meg of ram and open source software

Now, should you choose option "C", you'll need to take a hard look at yourself and your staff. Open source software is almost always based on some type of Unix variant, usually does not come standard with a GUI ready for use and can use some fairly arcane commands just to install. As a result, the learning curve is considerably steeper than with some commercially available packages. If you don't have the expertise in house to work with the software, the fact that you didn't spend any money is far overshadowed by the amount of time and effort it took just to get the product up and running. As well, you need to give thought to other implications brought about by improperly configured machines (system downtime, security, etc.). However, should you have the expertise or the time to learn, there is a definite cost savings that can be associated with using older machinery and open source software.

As you can see, open source software isn't for everyone out of the chute. As time passes though, I'm sure that we'll all see a far greater number of users and better standardization by the companies and organizations that maintain the software.

If you would like to learn more about open source software and its possible uses in your enterprise, I would recommend the following web links as good places to start:

OpenBSD www@openbsd.org
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