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Assessing OSS Readiness for Voluntary Sector Organizations

I. Overview

There is considerable interest in exploiting Open Source Software (OSS) in the voluntary sector. In order to do so, it is necessary to understand some of the opportunities and challenges in making this decision.

OSS represents a broad class of software that is characterized by being non-proprietary, developed by interested user communities and with the source code being freely accessible to developers and organizations. OSS software is not "free" in the sense of having no costs involved in using it.

Although source code may be free, the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of OSS may be as expensive or more so than equivalent proprietary software. The jury is still out on whether adopting OSS is more or less economical than proprietary alternatives as the equation for successful exploitation of OSS involves many different factors and business considerations. But there is no question that OSS is "free" in the sense that it allows organizations to have control over how they use and adapt the source code to suit their business needs. This element of control may have benefits that are not obviously economic but not all organizations may be positioned to either want this level of control or have the means to meaningfully exploit it.

II. Assessing OSS for the Voluntary Sector

Voluntary sector organizations (VSO) considering using OSS solutions may want to consider the following:

The Business Case

The key before adopting OSS solutions is to make sure this makes sound business sense.

1. What are the business computing requirements of the organization?
2. How does it expect to use OSS to meet these requirements? Does the organization fully understand how it wants to use OSS?
3. Is the investment in OSS (migration costs, support, development, hidden costs) justified?
4. Does using OSS match the organization's current and long-term objectives?

For many voluntary sector organizations, the worst-case scenario may be to have to support both OSS and proprietary software solutions. If the organization is considering a wholesale upgrade or change in its current computing platforms, there may be reasons to consider OSS but not without a careful assessment of what the organization requires from its software investments.

OSS On The Desktop

Probably the most contentious area of OSS is assessing its suitability as an operating system replacement (i.e. Linux or OS X or some variant) and/or replacement for common desktop applications. This is an area of OSS development that is quite dynamic and where reassessment on a regular basis may be necessary.

In general, OSS on the desktop is still in the development phase. In particular, Linux is often put forward as a viable alternative to MS-Windows. Although Linux has made considerable progress in making it easier to install and use, there remains a high level of commitment necessary to support this. Common OSS replacements for mission critical applications such as MS-Office or MS-Access are making great advances but are considered by organizations such as IBM and others as not quite ready for general adoption.

OSS applications such as OpenOffice do not currently provide the same user experience as MS-Office. Bugs, interface issues, instabilities, and functional limitations may impact upon an organization's willingness to switch to these applications. Users that have been comfortable working with a given set of applications will migrate to new ones with great reluctance and generally only when these show demonstrable improvements in usability and functionality. OSS desktop applications are not demonstrably better (and in many cases are worse) than the proprietary solutions people are currently familiar with using making the case to migrate to them less attractive.

Although adopting OSS solutions for the general desktop may not be wholly satisfactory at this time, this environment is changing rapidly and will need to be reassessed as more sophisticated OSS alternatives become available.

Legacy applications

Many voluntary sector organizations may have small databases that are currently enabled on proprietary systems.

1. Does the organization have the willingness and ability to address legacy migration issues?
2. What are the costs of maintaining the status quo versus migrating to a new system?
3. Are there OSS solutions that might be useful? What benefits are gained? What costs need to be considered?

Internet based content services

OSS solutions are particularly strong in the Internet services space. The combination of Apache/mySQL/PHP is the dominant basis for much of the existing Web. The rapid adoption of Linux as the operating system of choice for developers and Internet services is also notable.

In general, most VSOs are not running their own Internet servers or have large development programs. For these organizations, the use of OSS may not be particularly compelling.

For VSOs that are directly involved with providing online services and operating their own servers, it is likely that they have either adopted OSS or have this under consideration.

Application Development

It is not expected that many voluntary sector organizations will be actively involved in software application development. Where there is an interest in software development, using an OSS development model may provide considerable benefits. VSOs and government agencies may have an interest in ensuring that software development undertaken with public funds is made available to the broadest community possible and not to serve only narrow interests.




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Last Updated: 2019-10-21