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Proprietary and open source software in mixed environments

Stacy Baird | Aug. 6, 2010
Although popular debate may have you believe otherwise, modern IT architecture today often incorporates both proprietary and open-source solutions.

Although popular debate may have you believe otherwise, modern IT architecture today often incorporates both proprietary and open-source solutions.

These mixed environments are becoming common: a CIO may choose to use a mix when he builds IT infrastructure anew, a mix of open-source and proprietary technology may be required to achieve the greatest benefits of IT modernisation or greening of legacy systems; and invariably both sets of solutions will be implicated in implementing cloud computing.

Within software companies, lines of distinction are being erased as the marketplace continues to evolve. Companies once exclusively in one domain are now very active in both open source and proprietary technologies.

Proprietary and open-source software are distinguished in three ways:  development, licensing and business models. Licensing and business models have far greater impact on an end-user than differences in development models.

Proprietary software is licensed to users pursuant to the belief that software has an intrinsic value based on intellectual property rights. This intrinsic value is the predominant source of revenues in proprietary software business models. A software company may offer support services with its proprietary software, but these services are typically not essential to use the software.

Open source code software is most often distributed for free and licensed as copyrighted works under the General Public License (GPL), the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license (or variants), or Apache licence. GPL allows users to modify the code provided the modifications are also licensed for free under the GPL.

In contrast, BSD or Apache licensed code can be modified with proprietary code and the resulting software distributed under a commercial licence. Open source enterprise software typically must be customised and maintained, so useful deployment requires support services. These services, as well as proprietary or open-source customisation software, comprise the primary sources of revenue in an open-source-based business model.

From the enterprise perspective, the major cost for proprietary software is the initial purchase. With open source, the initial software cost may be insignificant, but there could be considerable initial customisation and ongoing support costs.

Differences between proprietary and open-source development were once far greater than today. Proprietary software is developed in-house by paid programmers. Open-source projects were once developed by volunteers working without pay in an ad-hoc, likely online collaboration, publicly sharing the human readable source code.

Today, major open-source projects are more likely to be developed by paid programmers employed by a non-profit open-source organisation, financed at least in part by the commercial software industry, or for a proprietary software company that supports internal open-source development.

Critics in the past have charged that proprietary companies tend to lock-in customers by using proprietary formats and interfaces. Although historically true, in the modern heterogeneous marketplace, these companies commonly use popular open standards; were they not to, they would lose enterprise market-share. Notably, some open source implemented open standards are not popular, and thus dont necessarily enhance interoperability or avoid vendor lock-in.

 

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