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Open-source software: Cost saver or administrative headache?

Software companies trying to make a name for themselves on a shoe-string budget are likely to offer licenses like GPL, MPL and QPL as a way to make it easy to release their products. By "open sourcing it" they hope to avoid the hassle of having to write up "TERMS and CONDITIONS" sheets for each project. While the software is released as open source, it is mostly released with no warranty whatsoever. That is reasonable considering that such software is often "free." The free or cheap up-front cost is made up with service fees. Most open-source companies offer fee-based support for their products. But for most part, the burden of providing service falls on the community and the developers. Further, there is no quality assurance other than the reputation of the project (and the developers). While for many this is enough assurance, the lack of warranty and quality assurance might still leave some people uncomfortable. To make "free" software more appealing a better way to assure quality is needed.

To this end, network administrators considering adding an open-source component to their networks should understand that the greatest consideration for quality assurance for software is the developer. You and the developer should come up with a framework that both of you can understand to make it easier to assure yourself of quality.

This framework might include:

  • A "General Practice Agreement" or "Ethics Agreement" that states ground rules for open-source projects and programmers in general.
  • Self-test guidelines. The guidelines would include a checklist that needs to be completed before any production release.
  • Documenting results of the self-test on the project site and/or distributing the test suite with the software.

Plenty of success stories have stemmed from open-source applications, but so have plenty of nightmares. To be sure your company is part of the winning pack, be sure both you and the developer understand the goals of the application(s) and have a thorough documentation set developed--the upfront costs here will be hefty if they are done properly, but the time and money you save over the long-term will make them well worth the cost.

Barrie Sosinsky ( president of consulting company Sosinsky and Associates (Medfield MA). He has written extensively on a variety of computer topics. His company specializes in custom software (database and Web related), training and technical documentation.

This was last published in November 2000

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