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For small and mid-sized businesses, there often is a question about whether to stick with tried and true software providers such as Microsoft for your servers, e-mail and business applications or consider adoption of open-source products such as Linux.

I've witnessed in this region some hesitation toward adoption of open-source products. I believe it's important to be able to make a rational evaluation of the two paths so you can make the best decisions.

First, what is open-source software?

Taken strictly, the term refers to software licensed under a specific type of license requiring the source code be made freely available. Anyone can contribute to the code base, but those contributions must be given freely to the community and available for others to use. Anyone can use the software and even modify it. However, if they attempt to resell it, then typically the open-source license forces them to make their modifications also available to the community at large.

Second, what types of products would one typically find available as open source?

Open source represents a mixed bag of software products and quality, much like commercial software does. In general, the more commonly used and mature the class of software product is, the better results you are likely to get with open source. Examples of rock solid and sometimes even industry-standard open-source-based products include operating systems, Web servers, databases, Web site content management systems, Web site e-commerce solutions, server virtualization products and customer-relationship-management tools. However, as you begin to get into more specific application functionality, open-source software becomes more hit-or-miss.

How do you decide whether to use an open-source or commercial product?

For most core types of software in your architecture, such as the classes mentioned above, you can generally assume open-source equivalent products are both mature and effective. Therefore, your decision should be less about quality and more about available support and total cost of ownership. The cost of your open-source alternative likely will be zero, but do you have resources available to support your choice? Are those resources more or less reliable and expensive than their commercial equivalent?

Open-source products should probably always represent the first thing you consider for your business. In my experience open-source products tend to have larger communities, more support and often more options. It doesn't hurt that they are free to use, and I have witnessed hundreds of thousands of dollars in saving as a result.

This was originally posted on the Central Penn Business Journal Gadget Cube.

More Stories By Treff LaPlante

Treff LaPlante has been involved with technology for nearly 20 years. At WorkXpress, he passionately drives the vision of making customized enterprise software easy, fast, and affordable.

Prior to joining WorkXpress, Treff was director of operations for eBay's HomesDirect. While there, he created strategic relationships with Fortune 500 companies and national broker networks and began his foray into the development of flexible workflow software technologies. He served on the management team that sold HomesDirect to eBay.

During his time at Vivendi-Universal Interactive, Treff was director of strategy. In addition to M&A activities, Treff broadly applied quantitative management principles to sales, marketing, and product line functions. Treff served as the point person for the management team that sold Cendant Software to Vivendi-Universal. Earlier positions included product management and national sales trainer for Energy Design Systems, an engineering software company. Treff began his professional career as a metals trader for Randall Trading Corp, a commodities firm that specialized in bartering and transporting various metals and coal from the then-dissolving Soviet Union.

Treff received his MBA from Pepperdine University and a BS in chemical engineering from The Pennsylvania State University. http://www.workxpress.com