Open Source Myth Busting

Ed Parsons' entry about perceptions of open source leaves me scratching my head. I'm pretty sure the intention was to inform about the reality of open source GIS as well as the perceptions, but his readership could come away a bit confused.

He writes:

The day started with Martin Daly of Cadcorp debunking some of the myths of open source software, including

  • Open source does not mean free !!
  • Open source means I can get access to the source code, different to "freeware"
  • Open source developers are not cola fueled communists operating from their bedrooms, but mostly professional programmers employed by commercial companies to contribute to open source projects.
  • In many ways open source licensing is as complex as commercial closed source licensing !!

I've never met Martin Daly, but know of him through the postgis-users list. I'm sure he'd do a great job debunking myths. Is the list in the excerpt above intended to be a list of myths, or a list of truths? To me it seems a bit of each, so I'll address them as they are.

Comments

Re: Open Source Myth Busting

Author: Martin Daly

Sean, I've already commented on Ed's blog about the slight misrepresentation of my words. What I would like to note here is that although I obviously am employed by a nasty closed source vendor, I was presenting in my capacity as a member of the AGI Technical SIG committee, and thus from a neutral point-of-view. I hope that I explained, rather than supported or opposed, open source. You'd have to ask the audience about that though. I do admit that I have "a thing" about many-eyes-make-all-bugs-shallow, which I think can be the case, but is often an over simplification given the complexity of some software. The bit about who developers are was part of the more general explanation of open source, rather than the open source GIS bit, and I agree comes across as a somewhat misleading out of the context of the presentation. Having said that, open source GIS would not be where it is today without the likes of DMSG and Refractions, etc. The question of support was raised during the day, and the Q and A session. It was pointed out that while mailing lists, newsgroups, IRC, etc., are the main conduits for support, companies like DMSG are starting to offer "commercial" support, for commercial rates of course. There was a feeling at the meeting that the organisations that were presenting case studies were cash poor but time rich, and that the support cost was "hidden" as man hours. More expensive? No idea. I would guess that it is very project/case/accounting-dependent. Martin P.S. I have read the "fearsome" GPL.

Re: Open Source Myth Busting

Author: Ed Parsons

Sean, I agree this could be open to misinterpretation, I think Martin has done a good job to clarify.. I'm still undecided about the support issue, I think at this point the perception about "support costs" is on balance valid, until there are more DMSG like companies offering support, "community" support is not an option for many organisations. ed

Re: Open Source Myth Busting

Author: Rob

Just some links to authoritative info on free *and* open source... http://www.fsf.org/licensing/essays ...if you prefer information in a blog like format, loaded with opinion and personality, consider starting with Stallman's personal home page... http://www.stallman.org/

Re: Open Source Myth Busting

Author: Paul

Ref: Martin's quote on open source related costs: ..."There was a feeling at the meeting that the organisations that were presenting case studies were cash poor but time rich, and that the support cost was "hidden" as man hours. More expensive? No idea. I would guess that it is very project/case/accounting-dependent." "Man Hours" are a cost-item to be sure; but it's what you do with your man hours and how fast you bring something to market. You are going to spend those hours doing SOMETHING; Thanks to DM Solutions and MS4W and the other tools at MapTools.org, I had a simple OS web application up and running in an hour. I could have done it all from scratch and spent two weeks trying to get Apache and MapServer et. al. all working on windows xp - but I didn't. I see no problem with open source support vendors charging market rates - especially when they give back to "the community" like DMSG has. I wish I had a dollar for every hour I've spent digesting the ESRI Support site; and I pay an annual extortion fee on top of the many man hours to troubleshoot their commercial software.

Re: Open Source Myth Busting

Author: Martin Daly

Sheesh. This could run and run... Rob, I read those and more in the (much too long) time I spent preparing my presentation. Paul, you quote me but then seem to miss my explicit reference to *the organisations that were presenting case studies*. It was not the case that anyone at the meeting stated that *all* projects using FOSS were like this or that you *had* to have lots of time to spare in order to use FOSS, nor did I intend to report it as such. As for your experience with ESRI: they are big enough and ugly enough to stick up for themselves. I would also trust that you do not imagine that this applies to all commercial companies, hint, hint.

Re: Open Source Myth Busting

Author: Eamonn Doyle

This is an interesting thread and I would agree that it could run and run. My experience is that in a complex GIS project the initial costs and ongoing licencing of commercial off the shelf software is insignificant compared to the professional services costs of project management, development and support. In all but the smallest projects, wehether you choose COTS or Open Source, the professional services costs are likely to be the similar. Everybody needs to make a living and there are no free lunches. In the past couple of months I've had exposure to two projects that selected open source software, in this small sample the total costs of implementation of both projects were far in excess of the COTS equivalent. Eamonn

Re: Open Source Myth Busting

Author: Sean

Indeed, Eamonn. That's why I suggested that we not make too much of the "free" aspect of open source. Can you provide any more detail about the two expensive projects? In your company or outside? GIS or not? It's hard to give them credence without any context.

Re: Open Source Myth Busting

Author: Eamonn Doyle

There are some commercial sensitivities here but without giving too much away... One was a spatial metadata/web services project in which some partners were using COTS and one was using Open Source. The COTS partners contracted us to develop, they got a working prototype within 12 weeks at a pretty reasonable cost. The Open Source partner had to recruit and employ a developer and did not deliver until about 4 months after us. Put an economic cost on all that and my guess it was more expensive. The second was a project on which we bid unsucessfully and subsequently discovered a Open Source solution was adopted at twice our bid price from a systems integrator with no GIS track record - so that's unlikely to come in on budget. In both cases my assessment was COTS was cheaper and less riskey. Opinions my own of course!

Re: Open Source Myth Busting

Author: Sean

Eamonn, Since you don't mention any specific shortcomings of open source, your first example seems like it could be a simple case of management failure. It could happen to any project where you bring in contractors, no? I happily grant your point about the relatively small cost of software in relation to the budget of a large project. Cost is mostly a red herring: The freedom of open source remains its most important aspect. At this point I must disclose that I am part of the team that won the second project you mention. I assure you the customer's situation is not nearly so dire as you make it out to be.

Re: Open Source Myth Busting

Author: Eamonn Doyle

Isn’t the web a small place! It wasn't my intention to criticize but I did want to contrast the approaches and outcomes. My experience is that open source software may not be ideal for all projects precisely because of the level of freedom you mention. When one is under contract to deliver to specification, timescale and budget it's useful to have both a well defined set of tools and a well defined set of responsibilities. As a systems integrator my company assumes risk on behalf of the customer, that’s what we get paid for. We share that risk with our partners, including the technology supplier. In a solution involving open source software it’s not clear to me exactly who is prepared to accept technical risk. As I see it this is a fundamental flaw in applying open source software in deploying mission critical systems. Once a partner who is prepared to accept this risk enters the value chain my guess is they will want a reward. The corollary is that when the customer themselves understands and is prepared to accept the development risk then open source software may be attractive.