The Lower-Cost Open-Source Software Alternative

BY CRAIG PRUSANSKY

Almost every day a story appears in the newspaper or on the television about local governments having to make budget cuts to prevent reductions in services or to avoid laying off personnel. Fire and emergency medical service (EMS) departments are having to think of new ways to reduce their expenditures to avoid having to compromise the level of service they provide to their public. One way to cut costs without cutting service is to look for alternatives to decrease the cost of “doing business” without reducing employee efficiency or productivity. Computer software has become a necessity for all departments and, therefore, represents a significant cost.

SOFTWARE LICENSING ISSUES

Software licensing involves a major cost for many departments. Companies that make computer software usually have some sort of licensing policy that requires a license for each computer on which the software is installed. Most of these companies charge a fee for each license. Often, this fee can be quite large, especially if a large number of licenses are involved. Most major “office” suites (Microsoft Office® and Corel WordPerfect Office®, for example) have this type of policy.

If the software is installed on a computer and a license is not purchased, the department may be liable to civil and criminal charges. Most governmental IT departments, as well as those of many private corporations, have an audit process to prevent programs from being installed without the corresponding licenses.

It is easy to see how computer software, especially administrative software, can become a major expense to a department. One alternative, open-source software, has gained attention in this time of budget crunching.

OPEN-SOURCE SOFTWARE

Open-source software simply means that the code used to write the software is “open.” It is not proprietary. This concept is not new. It started back in the 1950s and 1960s when all computer programs were shared among the academics and researchers who developed them. This was changed in the mid 1970s when technology companies realized that they could make a profit by keeping their programming secrets to themselves and designing computer software for the general public. The open-source software was pretty much narrowed down to academic and research software that was considered irrelevant or unusable for the public-at-large.

In the late 1990s, open-source software began to increase in popularity with the various dot-com companies that began operating on the Internet. Initially, it was limited to programmers sharing programming codes so they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time they worked on a project. After a while, tools were developed to make programming easier, and they were made available to anyone who could use them. Eventually, more and more programs were being developed under this sharing philosophy. Recently, this has expanded into software that is relevant to and can be used by the general public, particularly government departments and businesses.

Most commercially available products now have some sort of open-source equivalent that provides a similar functionality as the commercial product. However, because it is open-source and developed by a community of programmers instead of owned by a company, in most cases, it is either free or sold at a significantly less cost than the commercially available product.

The initial reason programmers create these open-source equivalents is to use the software for their own companies, since most of them are on a tight budget as well. This reason, combined with the satisfaction of creating something that can be shared with people who can actually use it, keeps the programs free and up-to-date.

OPEN-SOURCE EXAMPLE

One example of an open-source software suite that has the same functionality as its commercially available counterparts is OpenOffice.1 This product is now owned by Sun Microsystems® but is still maintained as open-source and is available free of charge for any purpose. It has a fully functional word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, and database program. Documents created with this software, though by default saved in a native format, can be imported or exported easily to other formats such as those found in Microsoft Office® and Corel WordPerfect Office®. It also has the capability to export the document to a PDF (Adobe® Portable Document Format) file.

Using the costs in Table 1 as an example, a small fire department consisting of five fire stations with two computers in each station as well as computers for the chief, assistant chief, fire marshal, and three administrative staff members would incur the costs shown in Table 2.

Larger departments would usually get “volume pricing” or order from a government price list, which reduces the cost per license. However, even with that reduced cost, the figures above illustrate that there is a potential for a large cost savings to be had just by switching to an open-source version of this office software.

SERVERS AND DATABASES

A significant savings can be seen when moving to open-source software for servers and server-based databases. This is especially true for servers running Web pages or in-house developed Web-based applications. Examples of server-based applications commonly used in the fire service are records management programs (patient care reports, fire inspection reports, training records), personnel and staffing programs, and computer-aided dispatch programs. If a department were to develop one or more of these systems in-house or even do something nonapplication related such as running its own Intranet server to post information to its employees, it could see some significant savings by using open-source software for developing and operating these applications.

Over the past several years, many companies have been migrating from commercially available databases (e.g., Microsoft SQL Server®, Oracle®) and moving to open-source (e.g., Sun Microsystems® MySQL). An open-source solution stack of free software is available to satisfy most client-server and Web-based applications. It has been given the acronym “LAMP,” which stands for “Linux, Apache HTTP Server, MySQL, and PHP/Python/PERL”:

  • Linux—the operating system.
  • Apache HTTP Server—the software that allows Web browsers from other computers to connect to the server.
  • MySQL—the software to manage the database transactions.
  • PHP/Python/PERL—three types of scripting (programming) programs programmers use to write server-based applications and Web pages.

An example of the cost savings that may be incurred follows:

  • Microsoft SQL Server 2005® Enterprise Edition retails for $24,999 per server.4*
  • Oracle® GSA list price is $19,345 per server.5*
  • MySQL is free.

* Does not include support or upgrades.

Some examples of companies that have been using the LAMP stack for their Web and database servers for several years are iStockPhoto, PriceGrabber,6 Amazon, eBay, and Google.7

It is worth mentioning that the same stack of software used in “LAMP” may also be used on top of Windows and Apple Mac OS server operating systems as well as Linux, giving them the acronyms “WAMP” and “MAMP,” respectively. This way, if an agency already has money invested in a particular type of server operating system, it would not need to completely abandon it to use the other open-source applications.

BENEFITS

Other than the cost savings, there are some other benefits when using open-source software vs. commercially available programs:

  • Upgrades. Since one of the concepts of open-source is to create a community where the software is created and maintained for the benefit of the users, upgrades are done often and are readily available. When an upgrade is available to be installed, in most cases, a notification will appear on the screen on startup of the application or system, allowing the user to upgrade the software with one click. All upgrades are usually free or at minimal cost.
  • Reliability. The programmers of open-source software are also users of that same software. So, they have the incentive to make them work correctly. Many times, when a bug is found in the system, it is fixed more quickly than in commercially available programs. 

DISADVANTAGES

As with many good things, there are also downsides to using open-source software. They need to be weighed against any cost savings a department may receive.

  • Comfort level. Mentioning the words “open-source” will make many IT managers cringe because it is outside of their “comfort level.” It is human nature to stay with what is familiar, and straying from the popular, commercially available programs is often difficult. Larger departments, especially those that have to run all of their computer decisions through a separate IT department, may have trouble with this.
  • Training. Training is available for these open-source programs, but it may be more difficult to locate than with commercially available products. Often, though, the training obtained for the commercially available products may be applied to the open-source-equivalent programs with little difference.
  • Customer support. Since these programs cost less or are free, the customer support is usually available online instead of through a telephone help desk. Some companies provide support for these programs, if needed, but they charge a fee.
  • Proprietary systems. Some proprietary systems, such as commercially available records management or computer-aided dispatch systems, require a specific database or server to operate properly. It is not advisable or may not be possible to switch to open-source solutions on these servers. 

OPERATING SYSTEMS

An operating system is the software a computer would use to run other computer programs. The two most common operating systems currently are Microsoft Windows® (all versions) and MacOS®. There are open-source alternative operating systems available to replace both these systems.8 Almost all of them are Linux based, which is basically a modernized version of the old Unix operating system. Linux is very reliable, is fast, and is much less error- and virus-prone that Microsoft Windows®. It is also available as a free or low-cost operating system. But, it is also much more difficult to configure and use than Microsoft Windows® or MacOS®.

In most cases, switching to an open-source operating system would not be feasible, since an operating system license usually accompanies a new computer at no extra charge. This far outweighs the learning curve that an end-user would have to endure for switching to a new operating system.

•••

As seen in the examples above, there is potential for a fire or EMS department to save a great deal of money by switching to open-source software for many of its applications. As with all changes, a thorough cost-vs.-benefit analysis should be done before making any significant changes. With some careful planning and a little bit of research, these changes might bring a little relief to a budget-strapped department.

Endnotes

1. OpenOffice Web site: http://www.openoffice.org.

2. Corel Store Catalog: http://store.corel.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/StoreCatalogDisplay?langId=-1&storeId=10302&catalogId=10103.

3. Microsoft Store: http://store.microsoft.com/microsoft/office/category/202.

4. Microsoft SQL Server 2005: Pricing: http://www.microsoft.com/Sqlserver/2005/en/us/pricing.aspx.

5. Oracle GSA Price List: http://www.oracle.com/corporate/pricing/GSA_pricelist.pdf.Open source.

6. “Where the LAMP stacks burn brightest, Danny Bradbury, 6/29/2005: http://www.silicon.com/legacy/research/specialreports/opensource/0,3800004943,39130613,00.htm.

7. “Case Study: LAMP shines at Pfizer,” Jennifer Mears, 8/8/2005: http://howto.techworld.com/networking/1650/case-study-lamp-shines-at-pfizer/.

8. “Why install Linux on your Mac?” Giles Turnbull, 11/30/2004: http://macdevcenter.com/pub/a/mac/2004/11/30/linux.html.

CRAIG PRUSANSKY, EMT-P, is a 27-year veteran of the fire service. He has served the past 20 years with the Palm Beach County (FL) Fire-Rescue Department. He is a district captain assigned to Battalion 7, which protects the western “Glades” communities. He served as the department’s systems analyst from 1997 to 2001.

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