Snappy Comebacks to Your Boss’s Open Source Software Objections

Stephen Sanzo // February 2011

So, you have done all the research and decided that an open source solution to power your website offers abundant benefits with limited downside. Congratulations, you are both a practical person, and about to be a newly minted member of the technorati. Now your challenge is to explain this strategy to your (less enlightened) boss. To be successful, you must not only be able to recite the numerous benefits of open source, but also be aware of the common misconceptions sown in the minds of the uninformed.

In my discussions with some less-than-technical decision makers, I often feel that they view open source as some kind of chaotic, hippie witchcraft where software code is conjured up in some caldron and cast upon unsuspecting souls.

Time for some open source exorcism.

Disclaimer: We are not responsible for any snappy answers that may risk your employment. Please use discretion. (I suggest paying more attention to the supporting commentary following these answers!)

Objection: “I have never heard of it.”
Your Response: “Of course you never heard of it. You’re still on Windows 95. But, I’ll bet you use it.”

This one is easy! You use open source software more than you think. In this case it is helpful to mention mainstream examples like Linux, Firefox, Android, and WordPress. You can also throw in that companies like Google and Facebook power their sites on an open source LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP).

The other issue to point out is that although some open source technologies may not have immediate name recognition, the best ones are both supported and improved by large, highly motivated communities of vendors and developers. For example, Drupal has a community of over 500,000 developers and users continually working to make the software better. Compare that to a proprietary solution that is only improved by a single company of perhaps only a few dozen developers.

Objection: “It’s not secure. We’ll get hacked.”
Your Response: “That’s odd. Last time I checked, there were far more exploits in Windows than Linux? It seems to be pretty secure for the White House and Google.”

A website powered by an open source solution will not increase your chances of getting hacked. In fact, enhanced security was one of the main reasons the White House (www.whitehouse.gov) chose the Drupal open source CMS for their website. According an IBM’s report on open source security, most consider open source software as secure as or more secure than commercial software.

Closed source products like Microsoft have been riddled with security flaws and issues through the software’s whole lifecycle. Now, even if you do a lot of troubleshooting and find the issue, you have to wait for Microsoft to fix it and release a hotfix as they are the only ones with access to the code. By contrast, open source products are usually much more secure from day one of its release. If you do spend the time and find the vulnerability you have the ability to go in and fix the code yourself. And, in the true spirit of open source, you can contribute your fix back to that particular open source community and then in the next release your security flaw is gone. In short, in situations where you have a large community using the open source software, you have more people finding issues and contributing fixes, whereas a closed source application you are completely reliant on the vendors to fix the issue for you.

Objection: “You get what you pay for. If it is free, it must not be good.”
Your Response: “Some things that are free are also good—for instance, air.”

There are a few issues in play here. First, open source is free as in freedom, not beer. At the very least, it will require someone’s time to install and configure. And time costs money. When you find an enterprise quality open source solution, like Drupal, you can free your organization from the bonds of license fees and vendor abuse. You are free to chart your own destiny.

As to whether or not open source is “good,” there are literally hundreds of thousands of open source technologies to choose from. Like anything with so many choices, there are good options and bad options. Sticking with best-of-breed open source technologies to fill particular needs, and following basic best practices (like regularly updating the software), will keep you on the straight and narrow.

Objection: “Who is supporting this software? What happens if it just goes away?”
Your Response: “What happens if it goes away!? You mean like Microsoft FrontPage?”

The key here is to make sure you are not negligent in selecting and implementing open source. The best open source products are generally the ones supported by the largest communities. If you have questions or need assistance, get some help. Popular products like Drupal, Joomla, and WordPress have invaluable message boards and lists where you can get quick, friendly, (and free!) assistance.

For those looking for more formalized support, there are countless commercial entities, like Acquia(Drupal) or Red Hat (Linux) that provide packaged, professional support for popular open source products. With proprietary software, you often have no choice of vendor. With open source, you have choice.

Open source vendors also have a different motivation. Instead of generating profits from license fees, their success is dependent on what makes the software successful—how it is implemented and used.

So find a vendor that is good to work with. An open source technology with a large and active community will outlive any vendor. If you don’t like your vendor, you can fire them and hire another. Either way, you’ll always have the open source technology.

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While possibly a bit close-minded, your boss is probably a good person. They just want to do what they think is best. And, by anticipating your boss’s objections, you can be prepared to provide insightful (and snappy) answers and be on your way to an open source solution that offers low risk and affords numerous benefits.