In startup environments, time and money are usually scarce resources – even if technical expertise or business acumen are not. Staying focused on a core product can be crucial — and being able to pick up existing tools or technologies can be a great advantage.
Open source software can provide a neat fit – though it’s important to run up-front analysis to make sure that clear benefits exist.
Where can open source help?
There are a couple of broad areas where open source software can help a technology-oriented startup business. Daily operational infrastructure is one – internal communication infrastructure, document storage and editing, and other ‘back office’ tools. Another is in product development – incorporating open source components into a service or product.
The initial cost advantages to open source software may seem intuitive; OpenOffice as a license-free drop-in replacement for Microsoft Office, or MySQL as an alternative to proprietary database systems. However, it’s generally worth taking a step back to ensure that the choice is the right one, and won’t introduce unnecessary or unintended overheads elsewhere.
Operations & Infrastructure
The time required to set-up and maintain infrastructure is commonly a key factor for small organisations; employee focus is valuable, and spreading it across too many tasks can be counter-productive. There will always be a lot of hats for early employees to wear, but it’s still worth avoiding any unnecessary distractions.
On the desktop, Ubuntu and other distributions of GNU/Linux have reached the point where installation and set-up of typical workstations requires neither considerable technical effort, nor expensive software licenses. If your employees are technically minded and/or already familiar with these distributions, there are likely to be cost savings to exploit.
Elsewhere, the case may be less clear – configuration of an open source business e-mail server, for example, commonly requires more time and attention – depending upon the employee skill set available. There are some projects, however – such as Yahoo’s Zimbra – which attempt to simplify the process.
From web browsers to image manipulation libraries, there’s a wealth of open-source software available to download. As long as you can adhere to each project’s licensing terms — some may require, for example, that any modifications you make are subsequently redistributed — you’re generally allowed to incorporate the software into any solutions you provide to your customers.
If you can avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’ by building on proven software, you may be able to deliver products more quickly and with fewer defects – a generally accepted engineering principle. The same caveats apply here as they do for infrastructure services however – pay-for tools should not be dismissed outright, and the full requirements, reliability and maintainability of all available software components should be analyzed to ensure suitability.