Open source tools can help small businesses cut costs and save time

Originally published by The Guardian.

Small businesses are reaping the benefits of free open source software, but it pays to be aware of the downsides.

Imagine if there was a global community of tech experts who were independently building and improving digital tools that you could use for free. Tools that could help you provide a service for, and communicate with, your customers.

Well, there is. The open source community is made up of amateur and professional computer coders who work on publicly available computer code. Businesses can then take these lines of code from websites such as Github, to use in their software, products and services.

Open source projects are helping small businesses all over the world to save time and money.

If you run a web design business, open source content management systems and image editing programmes could save you hefty subscription fees; if you own a marketing enterprise open source solutions to managing email campaigns or analysing website traffic could be invaluable.

The latest Future of Open Source Survey, conducted annually by software company Black Duck, found that the use of open source software among businesses has reached an all-time high. Of the 1,300 survey respondents (which included companies of all sizes in 64 countries), 78% said they run at least part of their operations on open source software, which is almost double the figure recorded in 2010.

Tim Perry, technical lead at software consultancy Softwire, says that without open source software, the business would not be able to operate. “There’s no realistic way we could have built the same code ourselves from scratch,” he says. It would take up more time and resource than the business can afford.

As a way to give back to the open source community, Softwire invests time and energy in improving the tools that make its work possible. Last December, it came fourth out of 10,000 teams in a global competition called 24 Pull Requests (the title is a nod to how a change to open source code is requested – it is then “pulled” into the project by the community). The winning company was the one that made the most improvements to open source code that were accepted and incorporated into existing projects.

Perry says that contributing to open source is a priority for the company. “It’s taken many years of development by hundreds of people to reach the point where we have sophisticated tools, libraries and languages for anyone to use. So our decision to invest time and skills back into that ultimately means that we have better tools available for our work.”

The community has also been vital to Chris Perks’s digital marketing company, Blue Ethos, which builds customers websites using Wordpress (itself an open source project).

The basic features of Wordpress can be used for free and come without a substantial licence fee, a cost that is common for businesses using closed, commercial systems. Blue Ethos tailors its customers’ Wordpress-based websites with its own plug-ins and widgets, built by its team of four software developers.

For those on a tight budget Wordpress is an easy choice. If the website is hosted by Wordpress itself, there’s no cost. If the business wishes to host the site themselves (with a tailored domain name and design), it is still only £20 per year.

Because Wordpress is an open source project, it has also been easy to find developers in the community that can work on Blue Ethos’s outsourced projects. Software developers tend to specialise in certain coding languages and open source tools, but Wordpress skills are common among the community. Perks says: “You can outsource [Wordpress] work all over the world.” The company has used freelance coders in Ukraine, the Philippines and the US, so far.

There are concerns about the security of open source software, compared to its commercial counterparts. Some say that because the community is constantly working on the code, vulnerabilities are easily spotted and fixed. But the 2014 Coverity report (pdf) disputes this, saying: “Commercial software [is tackling] security vulnerabilities at a relatively faster pace than compared to open source software.” The findings came from an analysis of more than 10bn lines of open source code from 2,500 open source projects as well as an anonymous sample of commercial projects.

Scott Wilson is service manager for OSS (open source software) Watch, an independent organisation that offers advice on the use and development of open source software. He says when comparing the security and quality of open source and commercial software “it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other”.

He explains that because open source code can be easily accessed and studied online, a potential hacker can find vulnerabilities. But this transparency, and the number of coders who can access and change it, mean that vulnerabilities tend to be fixed. He compares this to commercial software where businesses do not have access to the code itself. Vulnerabilities within it are therefore often not identified until they have already been exploited.

A downside to open source is the lack of official support – there’s no helpdesk to call. Wilson says: “With open source, much more of the due diligence is the onus of the customer. You have to perform more of the analysis yourself. [But] if the software has a good community with a number of people contributing, then it’s going to be improved and maintained over time.”

Open source may have its problems, but with an active community improving existing code and creating new tools small businesses can easily try out new platforms and drop them if they are unsuitable, without wasting money. Wilson adds: “There are no restrictions [...] you can just build on it and that is really powerful.”

Other open source projects to consider:

  • SuiteCRM – this customer relationship management tool has add-ons for reporting, workflow and security, plus desktop notifications and social media tools.

  • Mautic – allows you to create web and email campaigns that track customer engagement and roll it all into detailed reports. It also integrates with third-party providers, such as Mailchimp and social media platforms.

  • OrangeHRM – offers tools for employee administration, including recruitment, performance reviews, leave requests and timesheets.

  • Odoo – makes accounting, invoicing and project management easy, with add-ons for warehouse management, live chat and analytics. Security Onion – this network security tool can help with intrusion detection and provides logs of users for inspection and analysis.

  • Piwik – the open source alternative to Google Analytics, Piwik includes metrics on your website’s visitors (the number, where they came from, where they go to) and has a customisable dashboard.

  • Gimp – GNU Image Manipulation Programme is the open-source alternative to Photoshop.

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