I recently spoke to Dr SPT Krishnan, Chairman, Infocomm Technologies Advisory Panel, Singapore Red Cross Society. He and his team were responsible for Donorweb, a web platform for “disseminating critical information on blood requirements and reaching prospective blood donors during normal and emergency time periods.”
It was developed within the Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP (LAMP) framework, all of which is Open Source and is probably the most widely-used software bundle for web development at the moment. Dr Krishnan spoke with clarity and passion about the background behind the project, and one remark he made stood out in particular: “No one company owns or controls an open source project. Even if a particular company withdraws from or is unable to continue with a project, somebody else is able to take up the leadership.”
As someone who has experience within the LAMP ecosystem, I realised that therein lie both the strength and weakness of Open Source software. I’ve had the chance to witness first-hand the diversity of solutions, talent and degrees of success an Open Source environment can bring to web development. I’ve seen projects start off with a tremendous amount of energy and vision, but have those quickly dissipate in a circle of mismanagement, a constantly shifting pool of developers, and IT leadership too dependent on key individuals being accountable to a timeline.
But the developer community is also one of the key strengths of the open source environment, the equivalent of which simply does not exist in the proprietary paradigm.
In my previous life as a web designer, I was once stuck because of lack of pagination on a sitemap for a massive e-commerce site using Joomla and Virtuemart — open source Content Management Systems, free for use out of the box. I had to get it done in 48 hours, and a few relevant forum posts and $100 later, it was done. A developer from Macedonia agreed to take it on, sent the code over in less than two days, and I simply “plugged it in”.
I cannot imagine how long I would have had to wait or the amount it would’ve cost if I had not had access to the code, and had to depend on going through call centres and several levels of service staff.
On the flip-side, of course, had it been for a less popular and developer-rich open source system, the wait could’ve been indefinite. The code is not guaranteed to be optimal, either, and several hands — belonging to different coding practices and skills levels — crafting a single-purpose, business-ready website cannot guarantee resilience.
However, now with platforms like Wordpress, Joomla, and Drupal — the latter pre-customised especially for the public sector — it is possible to build multi-site government portals for just about any conceivable citizen-facing function. PHP coders are ubiquitous, and either hiring a few in-house or outsourcing development is cheap and easy. As Dr Krishnan said, “One of the most important things in choosing LAMP was the assurance that it’s not going to vanish one day.” The only thing it needs is awareness and initiative.
Open Source development thus needs either a very strong in-house team that will assure an organisation of continuity in its IT systems or third-party customisation services that will take on the job of tweaking and maintaining systems as needed. The difference between this and the proprietary model is that there is no lock-in: an organisation can switch between in-house and third-party teams at will, or scale up or down their service plans as needed.
Talking about avoiding vendor lock-in, Dr Krishnan remarked, “When a company withdraws or stops supporting software, you are left with no choice but to upgrade to the next version, which can be a difficult process because IT may not be your core line of business — your core business is probably something else.”
Open Source thus inadvertently introduced the business model of the cloud decades before the ‘cloud’ as we know it came about. Perhaps this is really the natural evolution of the software provision model as it adapts to and responds to society’s needs. In any case, as government entities become more entrepreneurial and stop thinking in terms of “permanence” of IT contracts (rolling over from version to version ad infinitum), Open Source can become a viable option; IT has percolated so deeply into organisational processes that it’s almost impossible to point to where IT ends and administration begins.
Proprietary software acquisition can present a purity of purpose and a lack of hassle, while Open Source procurement gives great power, but also great responsibility. Openness is being embraced by traditional software powerhouses like Microsoft — at least when it comes to interoperability and open standards — and it’s safe to say the open-proprietary divide is more meaningfully talked about as a continuum instead of a strict dichotomy.
For a self-aware, well-resourced IT department, both have their advantages and disadvantages, their uses and their pain-points, and I’m not fully convinced that one is always better than the other devoid of context.
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