Open source software alternatives help universities focus on what works

Open source software (OSS) should be considered as a matter of course in the IT procurement process at universities, says Randy Metcalfe, Communications Manager at OSS Watch, a national advisory service based at the University of Oxford.

Speaking at the AURIL conference in Edinburgh on 29 April, Metcalfe said:
“Interoperability and flexibility are two key reasons why higher education institutions should be looking at open source software alternatives alongside proprietary options. While cost is often the first reason why freely available open source alternatives are considered, it is rarely the best reason for choosing open source,” said Metcalfe.

Software released under an open source licence is freely distributed with its source code, enabling users to use, copy, distribute, examine, modify and improve it to meet their needs.

In October 2004, the Office of Government Commerce published a report on OSS(1) which recommends that publicly funded organisations should consider OSS as a viable alternative to proprietary software. The report concluded: “Apart from reductions in the cost of software licences, benefits of open source can include cost avoidance through reductions in replacement cycles of hardware, improved software reliability and security, software platform stability, the ability to tailor and modify the software, easier administration, and greater scalability of hardware platforms.”

Metcalfe agrees: “When everyone has access to the source code, present and potential glitches are identified and resolved quickly. What’s more, we can see exactly what the changes amount to. Equally, the tendency to deploy open standards in open source software increases the likelihood that it will interoperate with other software that follows these internationally agreed open standards. This puts control back in the hands of the universities deploying the software. It also leads to healthy competition in the service-oriented IT market since new companies have as much access to the source code as anyone else.”

“When universities also consider open source alternatives their attention stays fixed on establishing whether the software satisfies the needs of their end-users. Whether they end up choosing an open source or a proprietary solution,” says Metcalfe, “the end-user wins.”

References: (1) Open Source Software Trials in Government Final Report, OGC October 2004

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