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Did Open Source Win?

Did Open Source Win?

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On her oft-fascinating blog Zen and the Art of Nonprofit Technology, Michelle Murrain has been working on a great series of posts called Open Source vs. Proprietary, in which she looks at various types of software that nonprofits need to do their work and compares the open-source and proprietary options. Michelle looks not only at the usefulness and robustness of the tools themselves, but also at their ubiquity in the sector and the amount of nonprofit-specific support available.

In the first post of the series, Michelle asserts that with increasing focus on cloud computing, the battle between open source and proprietary software is coming to a close. But it's hard to say who won, as both sides could count the cloud as a victory:

The cloud would not exist without FOSS. There is no way that the kind of inexpensive cloud architecture could have developed if everyone had to have depended on proprietary, licensed software. The cost required to either pay software makers, or recreate everything needed from scratch would have made something like the cloud, or a Google, so expensive as to be impossible.

But what's also true is that "the cloud" is, at its core, supremely proprietary. Not only do you not have access to the code running something like, say,, but in some cases (such as the case of Facebook) the cloud service providers own your data, too! Even if you wanted to, you couldn't download your own copy of Google Apps to run on your desktop.

And, at the same time, the cloud provides you with an ever increasing set of features and functionalities, with ever increasing ease of use, at ever decreasing costs. This is both made possible by open source software, and is completely proprietary.

Ultimately, most organizations' tech infrastructures use a combination of free and proprietary software. When you're looking for the software that your nonprofit or public library needs to do its work, it's important to focus on the problem that you're trying to solve, not on how to wedge a premade solution into your work.

It's also important to understand the total cost of ownership (TCO). Detractors of open source love pointing pointing out the "hidden costs" of open-source software: training, implementation, etc. The more complicated reality is that proprietary software has those "hidden costs" too; what tool has a lower TCO depends a lot on your organization's individual needs and how much customization and training you'll need to achieve them.

Check out all of the posts in Michelle's series so far:

Finally, don't forget to bookmark Michelle's Nonprofit Open Source Initiative for a wealth of resources about free and open source software.


Photo: Paul Joseph, CC license

Elliot Harmon
Staff Writer, TechSoup

  • While it's unfortunate that she still posits this as a "battle" there's some good information in her series. I think the commoditization of hardware has more to do with lowered costs vis-a-vis the cloud more so than the use of open-source, if we think of cloud on the Infrastructure (IaaS) and Platform (PaaS) aspects rather than the Software (SaaS) parts. Nonprofits just want to get things done efficiently and cost-effectively, sometimes it'll be proprietary sometimes it will not.