One great irony of proprietary software is that you pay to have less freedom and flexibility than you would get if you downloaded free open source software.
That's particularly true when you consider support. If you buy a commercial software package, you're usually able to get different levels of support from the software vendor. This may be included in the license fee, or you may have to pay extra for it.
In almost all circumstances, though, you're restricted to whatever the vendor offers. If you don't like what's offered, that's just too bad.
Free Software, Free Market Dynamic
The situation is quite different with open source software, as the source code is freely available for anyone to examine and modify. Support may not be available from a vendor in the way that it is with proprietary software — although vendors such as Red Hat do provide support as part of their subscription offering — but that certainly doesn't mean it isn't available at all.
Far from it. "The way to think about it is that support is unbundled (from the software) but widely available," says Simon Phipps, president of the Open Source Initiative and founder of open source management consultancy Meshed Insights.
If you're an Oracle customer, for example, you're effectively locked in to Oracle support. If you use Apache software, on the other hand, a number of support suppliers compete on quality and price.
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It's hard, then, to avoid the fact that commercial software companies that restrict access to their source code have a monopoly on the provision of support. With open source software the polar opposite is true. "With open source, there's a free market dynamic to support," Phipps says, "and prices are controlled by the market."
This is a theme taken up by Simon Bowring, a director at open source support provider Transitiv Technologies. "We have customers who were previously using proprietary software and they were locked in. If they needed new features they had no option but to wait for the vendor to write them," he says. "With open source software, we can write code for our customers very quickly, and contribute it back to the community, if the customer agrees."
Since there's competition for support contracts, Transitiv has to respond accordingly, Bowring says, pointing to the demand for 24/7 support and one-hour response times. (The company can't guarantee resolution times, but most issues are fixed within a few hours, he says.)
With Open Source, You Define Terms of Support — Even DIY
Since the source code for open source software is freely available by definition, this means you don't have to restrict yourself to choosing between the support offerings of companies that supply support contracts. You can be proactive and put your exact support requirements out to tender.
This is the thinking behind a Call for Proposals for changes to Libre Office and OpenOffice issued in March and required by a group of German and Swiss public bodies. "They're exercising their ability to leverage the market to get support work done at the best price by the best people," Phipps says.
A similar option — useful for smaller open source software projects where third party support contracts may not be available — is to contact the author directly and pay for his or her time to support the software on an ongoing or one-off basis. You may also be able to get support from the system integrators or consultants responsible for choosing the software.
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An alternative to buying support for open source software is to support it yourself, getting help and pointers from the original developers or the open source software community involved with the software through mailing lists and forums. "If you have the necessary skills and just need pointers, then these forums are very good," Phipps says. "It's likely that you'll get the information you need to solve problems very quickly indeed."
However, he adds, you need good coding skills to perform this type of self-support. "If you have no clue what you're doing, these forums won't treat you very well," he says. That might mean that supporting the software yourself involves employing someone with the right skills.
Open Source Software Support Not Hard to Find
What does this all mean? Rather than relying on a vendor to support the product, with open source software you can get support in at least five different ways:
- Support the software yourself (if you have the necessary in-house skills) using the source code as a starting point and exploiting free support resources such as mailing lists, developer forums, live support chat, extensive documentation libraries and websites such as Stack Overflow.
- Pay the project sponsor for support, either by taking out a subscription that includes support for a product such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux or by buying a support package as an option for a product such as Ubuntu or Asterisk. Engage a third-party such as the software's developer, another programmer with the necessary skills or a specialist open source software support company to offer support on an ad-hoc basis.
- Take out a commercial support contract with a third-party support provider. These are often available with options such as phone or email contact, guaranteed response times, a choice of business hours only vs. 24x7 support, and so on.
- Get support from your systems integrator or IT consultants if they happen to be responsible for the part of your infrastructure running open source software.