The lure of free and open source software (FOSS) has always been its 'low-cost' feature. It is true that a significant amount of money can be saved, says Devaka Randeniya, research engineer at Virtusa Corporation - if FOSS solutions are applied effectively and efficiently.

FOSS can be applied in different ways to achieve better return on investments. To understand how savings are accrued, consider the areas within any organisation where IT can be applied and see how FOSS can be used to save money.

In terms of platforms, Linux is by far the most popular operating system in the FOSS world. With an R&D value of over $1 billion, it is competing head to head with Windows and has become the second most popular operating system. In terms of cost savings, Linux provides two main benefits.

Firstly, Linux has the ability to provide horizontal scaling with the exception of the no additional licence fee involved. This feature can save considerable amounts in capital and operating system costs, compared to vertical solutions where for each machine there has to be a licensed operating system.

Secondly, in a corporate environment, the recommendation is to use a proprietary version of Linux, such as Redhat or Novell/SUSE. The reason for such a selection is due to the proper maintenance and service support for Linux these vendor companies provide, compared to the community-based Linux version.

Although there is a significant cost involved in purchasing a proprietary Linux, the possibility of installing 'zero cost' applications on it will bring down the overall cost significantly.

In terms of Clientware, OpenOffice is being considered more and more for the desktop productivity suite. In large organisations, office suite software can cost millions of dollars due to the number of desktops.

Using OpenOffice at zero cost, organisations such as these can save real money. However we need to keep in mind that OpenOffice is not mature enough to provide a fully featured productivity suite. It still lacks certain features when compared to Microsoft, such as diagramming tools (e.g. Microsoft Visio).

Content management systems (CMS) are popular software systems that organisations use for internal strategic processes such as document management, business process management, team collaboration, email management, workflow and web management. Wordpress and Drupal are some of the popular solutions available among a list of almost 100 open source products.

Since CMSs are specifically used internally, it would be more cost effective to use a product in which you have complete control in order to make any modifications necessary to align with company process changes. The proprietary version of these systems costs from $2,000 to over $15,000.

Another noteworthy cost-saving area is in Serverware. Apart from the Apache helicopter, the next most popular Apache is the web server. This server runs over 70 per cent of the servers of the internet. This is the 'low hanging fruit' of open source, which costs absolutely nothing.

The J2EE application server is gradually moving from non-critical systems to mission-critical ones. The stability and maturity of the open source application server JBoss, as well as its increasing popularity among developers, make JBoss a valuable and low-cost alternative.

Databases are another area where FOSS is building powerful products. This area is vital to any organisation because it stores and maintains crucial information. Due to this, most are compelled to go for a proprietary product that provides the necessary maintenance and backup-support services.

However there are open source databases that have equal features and support services such as MySQL and PostgreSQL. MySQL is by far the most successful open source database and PostgreSQL is the high-end database targeted at larger enterprise implementations. Both these products have free as well as commercial versions, which offer the necessary support services.

Apart from the infrastructure, another key feature of FOSS is the ability to reduce the time and money involved in software development. Making software development more efficient by using the right set of skilled professionals and the right development tool-kits is key to reducing costs. FOSS development tool-kits were designed by developers for developers.

Integrated development environments (IDE) such as Eclipse and languages like PHP, Perl, C/GCC and Spring Hibernate frameworks promote best practices in software development, simply because they were designed by developers themselves. By using them the development time is reduced dramatically. In any organisation a reduction in time to market is directly related to cost and FOSS gives the additional benefit of supplying the tool-kits free of charge.

In conclusion, cost savings is one of the major strengths of FOSS, and should be used to reduce costs in organisations. It should also be used as leverage with proprietary vendors in putting pressure on them to bring down prices.

To further exemplify the possibilities of saving more money, a detailed total cost of ownership analysis should be carried out. Only after this can an organisation look into the possible 'sweet spots' where an alternative FOSS solution can be applied. FOSS has come a long way and has made a significant impact in the market, showing that it is a market force to be reckoned with.

About the author

Devaka Randeniya MBCS is a research engineer at Virtusa Corporation's research and development lab. With over three years of IT experience, he is a FOSS advocate working with local FOSS communities to increase FOSS awareness in Sri Lanka. He is also a delegate of the Sri Lanka Youth Parliament.