Thinking of going open-source for geospatial web services? Why managed services based on open standards might be a better decision for your organization.
The advantages and benefits of open-source software solutions are firmly established and well-known. The movement has matured from its early, radical beginnings as a social movement into a highly effective and widely accepted form of technology delivery. Many of the high-tech companies in the market today owe their existence to free, open-source software. The allure is obvious. It’s hard to argue with “free”.
However when you take the long view, open-source is no longer the home run that it once might have seemed when it comes to delivering the best bang for your buck. Open standards, cloud computing and new business models like Software as a Service (SAAS) and Platform as a Service (PAAS) are challenging both open-source and traditional commercial licensing models.
Unless software development is your core business, or you are prepared to staff a dedicated geospatial IT department to maintain the software, you should think twice before committing your infrastructure to an open-source architecture. As they say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and open-source software has its costs, in addition to other drawbacks:
- Since there are few requirements to create a commercial product that will sell and generate money, open source software can tend to evolve more in line with developers’ wishes than from commercial requirements.
- For the same reason, the software can be less “user-friendly” and easy to use because less attention is paid to developing the user interface and often would be more difficult to install.
- Integration into existing systems can be complicated and expensive, requiring lots of outside help and constant maintenance by expensive consultants.
- There may also be less support available for when things go wrong – open source software tends to rely on its community of users to respond to and fix problems.
- Although the open source software itself is mostly free, there are still indirect costs involved, such as paying for external support and maintaining the software.
Integrating the software into your current systems will be more difficult and will require more internal resources to maintain. You will have to be prepared to permanently dedicate staff to managing these systems, or resign yourself to paying non-stop fees to consultants to do it for you. If software development is not your core business, you have to ask yourself if this is money well-spent.
Open-source vs Open standards
Aside from the up-front cost savings, one of the biggest reasons companies consider going open-source is to keep their options open. They don’t want to get locked into proprietary, silo architectures that will keep them hand-cuffed to one company’s software forever, or find that the cost of migrating to another solution is so high that they are stuck with outdated, stagnating technology. Fortunately, there is a way to enjoy many of the benefits of open-source software without the downsides: Open standards.
If you build your architecture based on products that implement open standards, such as those developed by the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) and its members, whether the software is open-source or commercial is largely immaterial from a flexibility perspective. Removing one component and replacing it with another can be as simple as swapping out the software with another vendor’s version, since they both speak the same language. Over the past 15 years, standards-based geospatial software has become highly mature and interoperable. The Web Mapping Specification (WMS) alone, for instance, allows dozens of different vendor’s map server products to interact seamlessly with hundreds of different client-side tools.
“Free” vs Standard Licensing vs Software as a Service (SAAS)
Another draw that makes open-source look attractive is the irresistible allure of getting something for nothing (although as discussed above, free software is never free). Still, when comparing it with the high cost of buying traditional enterprise software for in-house installation, it can look pretty good. It’s easy to rationalize the “down the road” costs of open-source in the face of big up front savings. Huge licensing fees for commercial software licenses are a barrier to entry, and can represent a big risk.
However, open-source or traditional expensive licensing models are no longer the only options available. Subscription-based Software as a Service (SAAS) solutions provide a middle ground, balancing the risk and providing a much lower cost of entry than traditional licensing models. When everything is factored in, the cost of subscription services, whether running in the Cloud, or on in-house hardware can be even lower than that of open-source solutions. In the “full-cloud” scenario, you’re also getting all the benefits of Cloud Computing including reduced IT costs, scalability, unlimited storage, backup, global availability of services, quick deployment, etc.
The magic of managed services
Support and maintenance are where the costs associated with open-source software really start to add up. Whichever licensing model you choose, your systems will require maintenance and technical support. Even if you are a commercial geospatial software company, your staff is probably not well equipped to handle this themselves. And even if they are, is maintaining this software in line with your core business? Is this money well spent? By its very nature, open-source software is more difficult to maintain, since you can’t just call up tech support when you have a problem. You will have to do it yourself, hire consultants, or submit a bug report to the online community and hope that someone solves it for you.
An interesting out-growth of software as a service has been the emergence of managed services. Not only can you farm out the costs and risks associated with your web services, you can farm out the management of those services themselves. This allows you and your staff to focus on your core business instead of sinking endless resources into peripheral tasks that do not directly advance your goals. You wouldn’t try to generate the electricity your company uses to run its operations yourself, so why would you sink precious resources into developing the web services your applications need if those services are not directly related to your business? A managed service provider can supply those same services at a fraction of the cost, with none of the up-front investment in infrastructure, money or time. And you’ll hit the ground running, because they are already experts in supplying those services.
The big picture
While open-source has its place, and may once have offered obvious advantages over traditional licensing models, the benefits are no longer clear-cut. They depend enormously on the structure of your organization and on your team’s ability to handle the extra work required to integrate, support and maintain the solution. And since the advent of open standards and cloud computing, many of the concerns associated with proprietary systems have largely evaporated.
What does the alternative look like? A next-generation architecture: Cloud-based, enterprise-quality software providing managed services, rigorously conformant to open standards and maintained by a dedicated, professional team of specialists whose only job is to deliver those services. Generally these kinds of solutions are delivered by subscription, so up-front costs are minimal. Often less than you would have paid a consulting company to implement an open-source solution for you. Support and maintenance is built into the cost of the subscription. The service is cloud-based, so you automatically reap the benefits of the constant upgrades and performance enhancements that take place in cloud centers. Your data is stored in high-availability redundant storage, so backups are built into the service. And since it’s all built on open standards, you don’t have to worry about tying yourself into a proprietary architecture or proprietary vendor products.
This is the kind of solution that looks to the future. Most tech companies these days are focused on building applications. The web services they consume to build those apps should not come with their own set of problems and headaches. They should be more like utilities. You buy as little or as much as you need, you pay by the month and you don’t need to think about exactly how those services are implemented or delivered. It is incidental to your business. So you can get back to work, focus on running your organization and achieving your goals.
 Rachael Bridge: Advantages and Disadvantages of Open-Source Software, Entrepreneurs Handbook http://www.entrepreneurhandbook.co.uk/open-source-software/