Professional open source is an open-source software business model where an open-source software vendor generates revenue from paid professional services, maintenance and support provided along with the software. Some open-source software vendors also provide commercial licenses of open-source software or customized versions of open-source software to specific customers
. Professional open source is more commonly used in the business environment rather than for individual use. "The more mission-critical the open source software, the more necessary it is to acquire paid support", suggested SUSE's Gerald Pfeifer. "Individual users will often tough out solving problems through community help forums, but SMB owners and enterprise users more likely will opt for paid support rather than devoting internal resources to support open source software," he added.
As open-source software began to become popular in the 1990s with the introduction of Linux, business hesitated to adopt it because of fears that no single entity guaranteed its stability or support. As a consequence, larger businesses would often choose commercially distributed software over a product that was released under an open-source license. However, there has been much growth in the number of professional open-source companies - made popular by companies like Liferay, Inc., eXo Platform, OpenSearchServer, Red Hat, MySQL AB, and JBoss. The business model of these companies tries "to offer open-source software with a free license, while using professional services, maintenance and support for these products to derive revenue."
Professional Services for Business Use
Under the category of professional open source, there are many different types of support available to users. Some may need assistance with their personal use of particular open source software, in which case there are options such as forums, live chat rooms and video tutorials available for free. In the case of business use however, there are more paid professional services available.
Technical support is one of the professional services available to users of open source software, this type of support can include a wide range of services from bug repairs to simple usage guidance. The case with most major open source software packages for business use is that the vendor of the software gives clients the option of commercial support in addition to the free software. Businesses can pay for this type of service on a contractual basis with regular monthly payments. Alternatively, they can receive technical support through independent firms.
Software training classes and workshops
In order for business operations to run efficiently, it is important for members of staff, who will be using the open source software, to be very familiar with the functionalities of the software. Businesses in this situation are likely to benefit from organising for their staff to be trained before they use the software. This can be carried out by sending staff to training classes and workshops provided by independent firms such as Open Logic.
Assistance with customisation
A lot of companies using open source software for business are using it due to the convenient ability they have to adapt it to their own business needs. "A starting point for modifying open source applications is taking an open source solution that comes close to your needs and adding your own modifications from there", suggested Mac McConnell, vice president of Bonitasoft. "Companies that still do their own software have very specific needs. Most companies today want to start with open source foundation and then customize from there." This may, however, not be possible without the assistance of someone with high technical knowledge of customizing the source code. To overcome this problem, businesses can hire professional assistance from the software developers such as QAT Global.
A dominant factor contributing to the preference of proprietary software as opposed to open-source software is the common misconception that there is more support available for the former than the latter. Developers of open-source software are under no licensing agreement to provide any technical support for their software, nor is any particular organisation responsible for doing so. However, professional open source provides technical support for users through one of the following two approaches and is a prime example of how users can counter this issue.
Part of the package
Certain vendors of open source software such as Red Hat include technical support as part of the package they provide. Staying with Red Hat as an example, they offer three levels of support for their version of enterprise Linux, the first of which is self-support which is simply the open source software with no support for the user. Secondly, they offer a standard level which includes support via the Internet and telephone for an unlimited number of cases during business hours. Red Hat also offer a premium level of support which would be provided at a much higher price but would provide support to the user 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for severe cases of technical difficulties. Red Hat is not the only company providing support as part of the software package, other companies with similar strategies include Canonical, AT&T, Rackspace, SUSE, HP, IBM, Nebula and many more.
Optional extra support
Another approach which is used by open source software vendors when providing users of their software with technical support is to provide it as an optional extra. An example of a company offering this service is Ubuntu, which provides an open source operating system for a range of devices. Customers also have the option of subscribing to Ubuntu Advantage, which is their professional support package.
Open Source Benefits
As the industry grows, the amount of open source software available is increasing. Of the present day, there are free alternative (open source) options available for almost every type of proprietary software. As well as the wide range of availability, there are several reasons why an individual user or a business model may benefit from using open source software instead of expensive proprietary options.
The number of software bugs found in the source code of open source software is gradually decreasing, and in some cases it has been found that proprietary software contains more bugs than open source software which has been built for the same purpose. A common reason for this is the fact that the source code is editable by anyone who wants access to it, therefore software developers are able to remove any bugs and errors as soon as they come across them.
The obvious advantage of using open source software in business models is the monetary savings that can be made through doing so. As there are no direct costs involved with using open source software, it can be said that businesses can save fortunes through not having to pay large amounts of money for costly proprietary software. In 2008 the Standish Group reported a drop in revenue of $60 billion in the propriety software industry due to the adoption of open source software. This also suggests that users had saved a combined $60 billion through using open source software instead of proprietary software.
A feature of open source software which has made it more favourable than proprietary software is the ability to modify the code to suit the needs of a particular user. An example of this was when Linux was used by NASA for their opsLAN system. “We migrated key functions from Windows to Linux because we needed an operating system that was stable and reliable - one that would give us in-house control. So if we needed to patch, adjust or adapt, we could," said Keith Chuvala of the United Space Alliance.
Reasons for Favouring Proprietary Software
Alternatively to professional open source software, businesses may look into proprietary versions. There are several reasons why this may be a better option despite the mentioned benefits of open source software.
Open source software systems are not sold to generate profit, therefore they tend not to be particularly well suited for all end users and are often developed to suit highly technical users with similar IT backgrounds as the developer of the software. Therefore, factors such as ease of use and cleanliness of the user interface are often overlooked.
External support for open source software often comes at a cost, whereas some proprietary software packages are provided with free technical support. Similar support for open source software is available but very scarce and, when found, likely to require a monetary payment.
Despite the fact that the source code being open to the public means that users can eliminate bugs or generally improve the software, it also means that malicious users can access the code and, in theory, infect the source code with further bugs and errors.
Ultimately the businesses needs and current affairs would need to be assessed in order to determine whether proprietary software or open source software would be the most beneficial.
As well as the support offered from the vendors of professional open source software packages, there are alternative methods of receiving support for open source software.
Free communal support is available on-line for most open source software packages. Mozilla Firefox, for instance, offers a service called ‘Army of Awesome’. This support system allows users to post their queries to Mozilla through Twitter, the queries can then be answered by contributors. Other packages such as Linux have on-line forums dedicated to individuals and small businesses. Similarly to ‘Army of Awesome’, Linux users can post their queries to the dedicated forum and wait for a response from another member of the forum.
Independent IT consultant firms can also provide technical support for certain open source software. Some consultant firms, such as Unicon and OpenLogic specialise solely on open source software and can provide assistance with a range of technical difficulties. Some firms will charge a fee for this service whereas others provide the service for free.