The one problem with open source

Posted on February 1, 2011 by Tommy McGuire
Labels: software development
[Corey, of Soup In A Deli, pointed this out to me this morning, but it was such a disturbing thought that I immediately had to write this post.]

What is the worst problem with open source software? It would have to be a completely inescapable problem, one which cannot be resolved while the software remains open source, as well as a problem restricted entirely to open source, one which simply cannot apply to any of the various forms of proprietary software.

Let me pause here a minute and let you ponder the question....

The usual suspects are right out. Documentation? Most reasonably popular open source projects have documentation at least as accessible as Oracle's, IBM's, or Microsoft's. Quality? It has been two decades since that one went out the window. Usability? Nah. (Looks like Atwood's got some broken links.)

No, the worst problem with open source software is...let me draw you a picture. If you're like me, and I know I am, you are a contractor working in a biggish enterprise shop. You probably have service level agreements as part of the contract, but unlike me, you probably have not just converted to a fixed-price contract, putting teeth into those SLA's. Suppose a problem rears its head, a mean one. A not-fixable-within-the-SLA-period problem.

If you are using proprietary software, it's vendor time (if not Miller time). Generally, the SLA timer is going to have to be put on hold while you wait for a response from the vendor. If your shop has planned ahead, you will have a SLA with the vendor, but I have never seen any agreements that were coordinated, so that any problem requiring vendor involvement was guaranteed to be handled within the local SLA period. So, while you are waiting for the vendor to get back to you, the clock waiting for your performance has to be stopped. You have time to cast around for the actual solution to the problem. You have time to find a suitable scapegoat. You might even have time for lunch. So, even if the vendor comes back with a "Not me!" response, you have extra time to come up with a convenient work-around.

But if you are using open source software, you are in a completely different boat. This time, without a paddle. In the worst case, you don't have anyone to point the finger at. A mailing list? Sure, I'll let you give that a try. Besides, I bet you sold the open source software with the promise that "I could fix it myself if I had to." Now, you have people looking at you with that annoying "Well?" expression. The only person you can point the finger at is yourself, and the timer is still running.

I suppose this is why managers seem so interested in "indemnification" from vendors supporting open source software. Unfortunately, I'm neither a manager nor a weasel (to the extent that that is not redundant), so I never really understood it before. I'm one of the people who just has to make it work, which is why I like open source; the baggage that comes with proprietary vendors is tremendous and very, very ugly.

So, there's your problem with open source software. If you are only interested in getting work done, open source is great. On the other hand, if you are interested in making money whether or not work gets done, open source software has a big problem.


>> if you are interested in making money whether or not work gets done, open source software has a big problem.

ZING! love it

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