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::Friday in Focus

Source code wants to be free
Thursday, November 02 2000
by Emmet Cole

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A late twentieth century Rousseau would have observed "Code is born free, but is everywhere in chains." But a sort of liberation is at hand for twenty-first century code via the efforts of communities of developers participating in the ever-growing open source movement.

In essence, open source software is software whose source code can be freely distributed, evaluated, and modified. In a fully open source model, object code, source code and documentation are free. In many cases, you can download the

product from the Internet and modify it in any way you like.

Contrast this with the traditional closed source model where you purchase a right to use object code and documentation but have no rights to copy or manipulate either.

The open source movement has been around since 1984 when Richard Stallman began the GNU (GNU is Not Unix) Project and the Free Software Foundation. The objective of GNU was to ensure that software was available free of proprietary

and commercial constraints. The Free Software Foundation created the GNU General Public Licence, commonly called GPL. Software developed under the GPL licence may be copied and distributed as long as it doesn't limit anyone's ability to freely copy and distribute the software. GPL also requires that any software derived from GPL software cannot be charged for or claimed as proprietary. But the GPL is only one of a number of open source licences available.

"Other open source licences, such as the Mozilla Public Licence (MPL), which supports the Mozilla browser, are less ideologically constrictive than GPL, inasmuch as developers are encouraged to use open source code as the basis of

licensed commercial releases. On the other hand, GPL offers more protection of intellectual property because it does limit to some extent what people can do with their code", Bill Claybrook of the Aberdeen Group told ElectricNews.Net.

Then there is the Free Developers Organisation (FDO), which promotes the development of open source solutions that are freely available globally but are funded by large organisations that want industrial strength proven code. The FDO is putting capital behind the GNU/FSF type methods of development, managing the funds and paying the developers for their work.

The FDO has recently been talking to governments about developing an Internet voting mechanism based on an open source relational database PostgreSQL.

Are open source technologies any good?

Well, how good is the Internet?

The TCP/ IP and HTTP protocols, BIND (the naming service for the Internet), SendMail (the mail-forwarding engine), Perl and Apache all have their roots in open source code. On one level, questioning the worth of open source software is a bit like asking, "What have the Romans ever done for us?"

We use open source products all the time in everyday computing.

According to Perl.com, Perl is the most popular Web programming language. The fact that Perl runs on so many platforms and can handle operating system administration tasks, as well as more traditional database-oriented tasks, makes it an ideal candidate for an e-business development tool. Since Perl applications can be written to run as embedded modules in Apache, Web server processing can improve as much as 2,000 percent. Amazon.com and Deja.com use Perl to run their sites.

The Apache Web server is a freely distributed HTTP server developed by the Apache Group. According to a recent Netcraft survey of more than 13 million Web sites, Apache is used by 60 percent of the respondents. The next most popular server, Microsoft IIS, came in at just under 21 percent.

Linux is the open source operating system that is quickly becoming the OS of choice for high-end server vendors, such as IBM and Compaq. Others, such as Dell Computer, offer Linux preconfigured on many of their servers.

PostgreSQL has many of the features found in commercial databases systems, including transactions, stored procedures, and extensive SQL support. If you're looking for an open source database, this is probably the best, but open source database technologies are traditionally considered to be weaker than their proprietary cousins, simply because they are considered boring to develop.

The fact of the matter is that if you stick to widely supported open source solutions with well-established communities, such as Linux, Apache, and Perl for example, you can build a stable, reliable e-business platform without paying a penny for your software and without sacrificing reliability. A recent study by the Security Portal Web site found that Red Hat (a variety of Linux) had around half the days of known vulnerability that Sun did and about one-third the exposure of Microsoft last year.

Advocates claim that open source code is of a higher quality than its proprietary counterpart via the critical power of peer review, which brings quality and reliability to code. Open source development communities are a good

example of what can be achieved via the combination of modern communications technologies and strength of numbers.

"It's generally accepted amongst the open source community that one works best on a project in which one has an interest - often termed 'scratching an itch,'" said Ross Lynch of the Galway Linux Users Group. "The great thing about this is that other people around the world may also have a similar interest in such a project, and will be willing to help. The fact that the code is freely available

means that anyone can work on it - therefore, large numbers of people can get involved easily. These factors lead to open source software being of high quality."

Many open source developers use or want to use the products they are developing -- among other things this means errors and bugs are fixed almost instantly when they are published. "With closed source software, the number of developers is strictly limited and fixes and patches often take weeks or months to be released," said Lynch.


Now even software that was once proprietary is taking the open source route. Skeptics believe this is a route some companies are taking in an effort to revive flagging sales performances.

Sun Microsystems, who employs 225 people at its European Software Development Centre in Dublin, has made the source code of its StarOffice product freely available on the OpenOffice.org Web site.

The hope is that a community of developers will engage with the code and raise the product's profile, but StarOffice will now be competing against other Office-type developers who will be able to snatch pieces of StarOffice code for

their own ends. This is the risk open source developers must face, which is why a strong community forms the backbone of open source development.

So what is the future for open source?

"Well, the fad will pass, and we'll be left with people doing what they've always done: working, writing software at work and at home to solve the problems they need to solve and releasing it," said Colman Reilly, technical director of the Communications Interactive Agency. "Some people will manage to build businesses supporting free software and the rest will just use it...I don't think propriety software is going to die out, but I think that it will have much less of a hold on the market."

Full-scale solutions will probably always require a combination of open source and proprietary tools.

"The law of survival of the fittest applies in the open source environment to a heightened degree, but an open source product can and will succeed if it has sufficient numbers supporting it," said Bill Claybrook of the Aberdeen Group. "Open source providers make their money from support, services and commercial releases tied to open source code. Hybrid business models based on a combination

of open source and proprietary software are growing and constitute the most likely route for future enterprises."

Emmet Cole is at

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