For several years now, we have been running all our business systems over the net using open source software. This is true for systems such as instant messaging, email, document management, project management and collaboration.
• Price. You don’t need to pay licensing costs to Microsoft any more; simply download the open-source software and install it. You usually get unrestricted access to the source code enabling you to modify it to suit your requirements.
• Flexibility. You are free to host applications wherever you like. This means you no longer need to put all your information in one basket, such as with Google. Instead, you’re able to separate the software from the host and own your own data. A good example of how to achieve that would be Zimbra, an open-source suite of office applications that can be hosted by any managed hosting provider. We have customers who rent a virtual machine from us and have us install Zimbra on it.
• Improved productivity. By using open-source software and adapting it to suit our needs, with fairly minimal development effort we have been able to build on those foundations to automate a large number of our processes such as account billing, administration, provisioning, maintenance and monitoring activities so that they require very little staff input.
• Desktop-free. Because they are all web-based it makes it really easy for people to work from home, or anywhere remotely. We have now migrated most of our staff to nix-based systems (mostly Linux, but some use MacOS) and they only require a browser and an email client. Firefox and Thunderbird are certainly enterprise strength, for example, and there are plenty of solid open-source server-side solutions.
• Increased security. In my opinion, open-source applications tend to be even more secure than their commercial equivalents as open-source communities are generally able to find and fix security vulnerabilities much quicker than their corporate counterparts. The very weakness pointed out by software companies like Microsoft (for example, that the source code is visible) is in reality its greatest security strength.
Perhaps the biggest objection to open source I hear is: “But what if the solution I'm using stops being supported by the open-source community?” First off, you have this problem with commercial software; what if the supplier fails, or, in the case of one like Microsoft, what happens when they change version and stop supporting yours.
But that is not the real reason. Open-source software is designed to be, well, open. All the apps we mention below are based on open-database architectures (often MySQL) with lots of documentation, so even in the worst-case scenario, all our business information is available in an accessible format, requiring only a little DBA time to extract. Try doing the same with a proprietary internal database.
Also, because the solutions are self-hosted (the software is from someone other than the host) you control your own data. We do not use Google Docs, for example, mainly because I don't want all my company information to be stored on a random server somewhere in the world with no guarantees of security.
What we use
We use a mixture of in-house developed system and open-source solutions to deliver an interlinking suite of information management tools to everyone in the company.
Customer information is stored in a central master database, and using software development platforms like Django we have been able to quickly and cheaply add all the features and tools we need.
However, the key element in the context of information management is probably our Wiki; it contains all procedural information and the distilled wisdom of the people in the company. You get complete version control and logging for free with the software, and those built-in auditing features helped make ISO9001 accreditation a breeze.
Trac is invaluable for sharing information between teams, keeping track of changes to documents and projects, listing outstanding issues, assigning jobs and creating visibility of each others' workflow. Having an organised central location where everyone can go is great.
It is certainly a lot better than trying to pass .doc files from one person to the other, or constantly uploading and downloading .doc files to and from Sharepoint and having to worry about out-of-date versions. And, as it’s Web-based, you can access your data online from any computer, secured and encrypted over HTTPS.
We use SugarCRM to improve productivity and sales effectiveness through the sales lead management functionality.
Request Tracker is an open-source issue tracking and workflow platform. We use this software to keep track of our to-do lists, assign tasks and to monitor who is working on which tasks, what has already been done and when the tasks were completed.
Openfire is an open-source XMPP/Jabber server for instant messaging. MSN is a possibility, but we prefer not to have Microsoft listening in on our corporate communications. We self-host and fully encrypt our internal instant messaging chat. Client software to download, Pidgin for Windows and ADAM for Mac work for MSN and others.
You do not need to be an expert to use these open-source systems. Even without the very basic systems administration skills in-house there are plenty of companies that will happily host and manage these services for you, while giving you full control and data-ownership.
With more companies looking to cloud-based business management services, open source really is coming of age, even for the most security-conscious of companies.
Kate Craig-Wood is managing director at Memset
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