4 tips to overcoming the most common challenges of open source software

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Every IT professional has been faced with making the decision between using an open source tool or proprietary software. These days, more and more professionals are turning to open source tools for their software needs because open source software is constantly being modified, evaluated, inspected and patched by an entire community of developers. It also grants IT teams the flexibility to customize the software to meet their unique needs.

In fact, according to a survey released by Black Duck’s Center for Open Source Research and Innovation (COSRI), nearly 60 percent of respondents said their organizations’ use of open source increased in the last year.

However, this doesn’t mean that open source tools come without challenges. As the future of IT becomes increasingly reliant on open source solutions, it’s important to be prepared to tackle some of the key challenges and considerations.

Here are four tips for overcoming the main obstacles to adopting open source software, without compromising security, scalability and more.

Keep your eyes on security

When it comes to open source software, everyone and anyone can have access to the code. The upside to this is that there is a higher probability of someone finding a vulnerability and creating a patch for it. This means patches often come out more quickly for open source products than for proprietary software. The downside is that malicious agents could find a vulnerability that hasn’t yet been discovered and use it to their advantage.

The Heartbleed Bug is one famous example of an open source vulnerability that caused panic across organizations. The Heartbleed Bug was a serious vulnerability in the popular open source solution OpenSSL, a cryptographic software library. The vulnerability allowed anyone on the Internet to access the memory of the systems protected by the vulnerable versions of the OpenSSL software, ultimately giving cybercriminals access to eavesdrop, steal data directly from services and launch impersonation attacks. OpenSSL is so widely used that the bug affected 17 percent of all SSL services, causing a security crisis.

In order to avoid security issues when adopting open source software, ensure you have dedicated team members who constantly check for updates and who can scan for and have the ability to patch vulnerabilities themselves, should it come to it. Hiring professionals who are involved in the open source community will ensure your team has the skill sets needed to manage any open source software issues that may arise.

Prepare to scale

When working with open source, you want to make sure you have the right programmers on staff. While some organizations have been shifting towards less-skilled developers who can leverage low-code platforms, open source software requires highly-trained programmers who can change the code - and do so appropriately, to ensure the software works for your organization’s particular use case and doesn’t prevent you from taking advantage of ongoing innovations from the open source community.

Before deciding on an open source tool, make sure your team:

  • Makes projections about how the solution will need to scale over the next five years. This should also be a factor in helping to drive your decision to go with one solution over another. It will also help you prepare for the work that will have to be done to scale usage.
  • Assess whether the software will integrate with the rest of your tool chain. No single tool can do it all, so inevitably there will be integrations as you scale. Solid, stable integrations are essential for success, so do the homework beforehand to make sure all your existing or planned solutions will work together.
  • Finally, remember to speak with others in the open source community to get tips and best practices. There is likely someone out there who has done what you’re trying to do. That’s the benefit of being a part of an open source community.

Fill in the gaps when you need to

While open source tools can meet the needs that commercial products fail to fill, they can’t do it all. It’s important to set this expectation from the start and be prepared to address it when it comes up. Even the best open source tools have functional and support gaps that commercial support steps in to fill. By combining the potential of open source software with the support offered by commercial extensions, IT professionals can leverage the software in the ways they need, but without taking unnecessary risks.

Some executives may question taking on a commercial extension to support an open source tool because isn’t open source free? It’s essential that organizations realize that just because there is no upfront cost, it doesn’t mean every open source tool will have a low total cost of ownership (TCO). Time and resources will be put into the aforementioned challenges such as security and scaling. Also, many companies require formal technical support to be in place for open source software before they will approve using it.

This isn’t to say open source software is just as expensive as commercial software, but proper budgeting and forecasting will be important for understanding what a realistic TCO will be with any new open source tool.

Keep up with the constant change

The open source community is very active. If you plan to make open source a large part of your IT strategy, it’s important to be an active member of the community. You don’t need to contribute to projects regularly, but you must stay up to date on the latest developments.

One way of ensuring your team doesn’t fall behind is to create an open source management structure and process to institutionalize and enable open source participation. With an internal open source team to track updates and innovative new open source projects, your organization will be able to take full advantage of your existing open source tools and even discover new ones.

The benefits of adopting open source tools are clear, but as with any technology you must plan and be prepared to run into common challenges. Making sure you have the right team and processes in place can be hugely helpful in ensuring a successful implementation of open source tools.

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