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Is Open Source A Recession-Fighting Tool?

The buzz on open source is that it can slash IT costs and save budgets. Our Linux expert looks at where and how much can be saved with FOSS -- and gives some caveats.

With hard economic times all around and no relief in sight, there's terrible pressure all around to cut budgets, tighten belts, and get the most for the least. That sounds like a perfect scenario for a CIO or IT department to make a jump to open source, and it indeed may well be.

Derived from the codebase, IBM Lotus Symphony rejuvenates the Lotus Symphony brand name.
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Still, switching to open source isn't like waving a magic wand. Like any other cost-cutting measure, a move to open source will only benefit you if you're actually saving money with it in the long run. Because the exact mechanics of cost savings via open source can be a little deceptive, here's a guide to getting the most from a jump to open source, both in the short and the long run.

How Open Source's Cost Savings Work

Before we get into a discussion of costs, let's spare a few words about the term "open source." For the sake of this article, we'll use a fairly generic and broadly accepted definition of the term: programs for which the source code is freely available and modifiable, which can typically be downloaded and used free of charge. It will also refer -- more often than not -- to open source applications that have the support of a commercial outfit behind it.

Most open source programs that are backed by a given vendor follow the same basic model: The program itself is free, but there may be a charge for additional things like professional-level components or technical support. The exact mix varies. Some companies charge nothing across the board for software, and only sell support; others offer certain features as cost-plus add-ons.

What's tougher to keep in mind is that these up-front costs are, as with any software investment, only the beginning. It's how these things pay for themselves over time -- or don't pay for themselves over time -- that matters most.

The analyst firm 451 Group conducted its own investigations into open source's cost savings back in October 2006, and concluded that lower costs are one of the most persistent reasons for adopting open source solutions -- even if the up-front cost for a given software product isn't where most of the money goes for it.

The costs divide roughly between "hard" and "soft" with the former consisting of things like actual software licenses, support, training, and so on; and the latter being things a little more difficult to qualify like lost (or gained) productivity. The latter surfaces most with any directly user-facing applications. If you make major changes to anything that's used internally on a daily basis, make sure you can spare time and cash for retraining.

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