Keep your options open

Technology | Tue 5 Aug | Author – Business & Finance
Open source software graphic

Rohit Thakral, chief executive of Target Integration outlines the benefits of implementing open source software throughout your business.

The IT landscape has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. In fact, it’s moving so fast that you could say it’s evolved beyond belief over the past ten years.
With the advent of smart phones, tablets and wearable technology, our acceptance for new and more practical technology is ever increasing. In the business world this is clearly evident by the rising popularity of open source software (OSS).

Not so long ago OSS was a term that was greeted with great scepticism and mistrust. CTOs and IT managers were apprehensive to work with anything that a) wasn’t produced by one of the main proprietary companies, and b) was free (or practically free).

The issue OSS had was that it was built around community development; that it was shared and as a result didn’t have the giant marketing budgets necessary to build a reputation that people associated with easily. Fortunately, OSS development received the major boost it needed from a very unusual source.

In 2007 in Ireland and across the globe, business confidence remained high and IT budget matched that. Businesses were not afraid to invest seven figure sums into the development of their IT structure or purchasing licenses that would help streamline their operations.

However, a year later, with the onset of the global economic crisis, attitudes were quickly changing. IT managers’ budgets were slashed but their bosses still expected results. Without the finance to go to the big players in the IT market they were left with little choice but to turn to OSS alternatives.

OSS is a much more bespoke offering, providing businesses with the ability to select the features they need and discard the rest.”

From here things began to move quickly. The realisation that OSS, with its communities of developers and desire to share knowledge, had a plethora of perks to it other than just was being significantly more cost effective than its proprietary rivals spread quickly throughout business networks.

For one, OSS is a much more bespoke offering, providing businesses (and their specific departments) with the ability to select the features they need and discard the rest.

70% usage of OSSAlongside this, OSS can be easily integrated into existing systems, it can be customised – giving businesses far more wiggle room with their software – and it mitigates the risks associated with being over dependent on a particular vendor, while providing greater security than proprietary software.

Today, most companies already use OSS in some way or another, often without realising they are doing so. For example, if your employees use popular browsers such as Firefox or Google Chrome, which are built on OSS platforms.

If your staff need to visit another website, then it’s highly likely they are interacting with OSS as it’s estimated that roughly 70% of websites, including Google and Facebook, are built using OSS. And these figures are growing. According to Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, 80% of technology will stem from OSS in the coming years.

But how do you go about introducing OSS into your business? As I mentioned before, OSS is incredibly flexible, making it quite easy to introduce.

However,  as with any IT project, failure to make proper plans can quickly result in problems, especially if you’re moving  away from software with which your staff are familiar and comfortable.

Here are some tips for introducing OSS to your company:

1. Dip your toe

While it may be tempting to jump straight into replacing those behemoth software applications, that are a huge drain on your IT budget, like Microsoft Outlook or Office, the risks of doing so may outweigh the benefits unless you have prepared well and set aside a large training budget.

The reason for this is that replacing workhorse software, that has been used daily by staff for years, can be incredibly time consuming and disruptive to your business.

That said, it can be done but perhaps should be considered as a long-term goal. Rather, target areas that are more specialised or better still introduce an application rather than replacing an existing one. This brings me to my second piece of advice.

2. What was before out of your reach

More often than not, the greatest obstacle to introducing new software is the cost. Thanks to the free – or at least low cost nature – of OSS, this generally isn’t an issue. Why not look at business applications you’d like to implement but previously thought were unaffordable? Perhaps it’s a customer relationship management (CRM) system or an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.

It can cost as much as €1,000 for each user of a proprietary CRM system, making it inaccessible for the vast majority of small to medium businesses. Better than just saving you a small fortune, OSS CRM systems often have web-based interfaces that you can access through your browser. This means you can introduce the software without changing how individual computers are set-up.

Here are some examples worth taking a look at for your business:

  • For CRM – Checkout vTiger. It’s a tried and tested CRM system capable of managing accounts, contacts, products (inventory management), invoices, service contract management, quotes, invoices, etc. It’s easy to install and is based on an open source license. Check www.vtiger.com for further details.
  • For ERP – If you’re looking for a software system that affords you the luxury of managing everything from your accounting and e-commerce to your manufacturing management and retail and distribution in one place, then look no further than Odoo. This web based application provides you with a comprehensive and detailed insight into the functioning of your businesses. Check www.odoo.com for further details.
  • For graphic design – While it might not sound too appealing, GIMP is a great tool. Among its features you find powerful painting tools, layers and channels support, multiple undo/redo, editable text layers. Gimp Shop is a version which is more or less the same in look and feel as Photoshop as well and hence for those who would like to move from Photoshop to Gimp, it gives an easy migration option. Check www.gimpshop.com for further details.

3. Pick the wheat from the chaff

While the rise of OSS should be praised for making increasing competition in the market, making high quality software accessible to the masses and challenging the proprietary giants, there is a downside to it. That is, there are now so many software solutions available that it is hard to see the wheat from the chaff.

As I highlighted earlier, OSS is highly bespoke and flexible. Because of this, developer communities have created solutions that may appear very similar but are really only suitable for specific industries. Trying to navigate your way through the mine field of different products can leave you feeling dizzy.

Having identified this issue, today there are many OSS specialists who can help you identify the software needs of your company and select the most appropriate solution. Better still, they can install the software for you and even provide training and support so that you can hit the ground running.

4. Invest in training

While the cost of acquiring an OSS application may be minimal, it is still necessary to set aside ample budget for training.

Just as with any proprietary software, in order to reap its benefits, you need to invest in training your staff to use your new, OSS applications so that they can confidently embrace the new technology. Remember that the software is only as good as the people using it.

Since I started my career in IT over 14 years ago, I’ve seen huge changes in the way businesses use technology. The Celtic Tiger freed us to invest in more advanced technologies, while the downturn taught us to be savvy with our budgets. All the while the goal was the same though – to improve and streamline operations so that businesses ran better.

Today, OSS is setting ever higher benchmarks for the standard, efficiency and flexibility. It is no longer a case of asking why you should use OSS but how.

Rohit Thakral B&WRohit Thakral is chief executive of Dublin-based Target Integration, an open source software company that specialises in providing CRM and ERP software. More details are available at: www.targetintegration.ie