Open Source vs. Proprietary

Clients and partners ask us frequently for our perspective on open source vs. proprietary technologies. There isn’t a right or wrong answer. It ultimately depends on the objectives and needs of the project. If you let the needs of the project drive the decision about what type of technology is used, you probably will be making a good decision.

Let’s define open source and proprietary.

Open source means the source code is available for anyone to use, change, improve, and share. The open source model allows users to leverage the source code to create and manage their own applications.

Proprietary means a company owns the source code and sells/licenses it to customers. In the proprietary model, the source code is typically packaged into a software product to be used by customers. Customers rarely get access to the source code.

Given the context of open source as a self-directed alternative to proprietary software, one would think that open source equals free. To use most open source technologies in a supportable and sustainable manner for your business, you will likely incur costs. You will pay for already developed code, such as frameworks, plug-ins, and add-ons. These open source products are affordable for most small businesses.

You might also need help leveraging and implementing open source products. There are many small businesses that help others take advantage of open source products. Without engaging with someone to help with open source, you are essentially on your own, with access to an online community to seek guidance from.

If your needs call for complex functionality −many levels of integration and high levels of security− proprietary is probably going to make more sense even though it costs more. The provider of the proprietary software would be expected to have developed and tested it to support complex and secure uses. Proprietary software companies are also going to provide better levels of implementation and ongoing support.

One of the challenges with any technology is once it reaches a high level of adoption, the hackers take notice. This is true for both open source and proprietary products. Unless you are going to change the source code of an open source product, you have a greater vulnerability because no one person or entity is responsible for the code.

This is the case with WordPress sites. WordPress is an open source content management system on which you can create and manage a website. We’ve been contacted several times over the past few months by clients and partners who have had WordPress sites hacked.

Hackers are now targeting WordPress sites looking for known vulnerabilities in the code. In one case, the hackers changed the login information so the company couldn’t even log into its site to restore it. The company had to contact its hosting company to pull the site down and create a new one. The site had to be recreated from scratch because their site content was not backed up and only existed within WordPress.

WordPress is a powerful open source product and is used effectively by millions of users. If you are going to use open source products, just make sure you understand the risks and what you will need to do to mitigate them.

Proprietary software is not immune to hackers and other challenges. After all, software is software− regardless of whether it is developed via open source or proprietary code. Presumably part of what you are buying with a proprietary product is the company behind it. Don’t underestimate the value of the company behind the product.

In the debate between open source and proprietary there isn’t a clear winner. The right decision is driven by the objectives and needs of the project. If the project you are pursuing is fairly simple, doesn’t need to be secure, and won’t be integrating with other systems, open source is probably a good option.

If, however, you will be processing information that needs to be secure, have a complex workflow, or integrations with other systems is required, proprietary is probably your better option.

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Ryan Frederick is a Founder and product person at heart. Ryan has had the privilege of being part of starting and growing several software and service companies. He has helped companies grow from inception to viability, through to sustainability. During the evolution of these companies, Ryan has served on company boards and been instrumental in capitalization activities. He has also helped companies to expand to international markets. Ryan combines a unique blend of business acumen and technical knowledge having originally been a developer who migrated to the business side. He now helps companies build great software products and solve data challenges for competitive advantage as a Principal at the product and data consulting firm, AWH. Ryan is an active angel investor, mentors and advises entrepreneurs and startups, as well as corporate innovation leaders. He launched a non-profit workforce development program to train under-employed adults on digital skills called i.c.stars. Ryan has authored a book on increasing the odds of success in creating products, being a Founder and starting companies by achieving FLOW that is to be released in the next few months. Ryan speaks frequently about the product, Founder, and startup journeys.