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Frequently Asked Questions about Open Source Software
What is open source software?
Open source software (OSS) is software that is free to download, free to use, free to modify, and free to view. OSS is open in every sense of the word.
Can I modify OSS software myself?
If you have the know-how, you can modify any truly open source software. However, that doesn't mean that your changes automatically become part of the core code.
Who gets to decide which changes become part of the core code?
Open source software development happens in a collegial, merit-based environment where the most skilled, experienced developers become committers – developers that the community entrusts with the final decision-making to make changes part of the permanent code.
Is OSS secure?
This may seem counter-intuitive, but OSS is by design more secure than proprietary code. Because the code is in the open, anyone can view it. There is no room to hide errors in the code (intentionally or through negligence) and the software's community can and usually will identify and resolve security issues in OSS far faster than in proprietary software.
OSS is so secure as a design model that no less than the NSA trusts it, and used the OSS model to develop Linux SE, its own "flavor" of the popular open source operating system.
Do I have to support the software with my library's technical staff?
While you can support OSS software with local resources, for a number of products, you don't have to. Companies such as Media Flex, Red Hat, Acquia, and others provide soup-to-nuts services, including consulting, migration, support, development, training, and more. With regards to Evergreen, there are several companies that could help.
What's the difference between Free Software, Open Source Software, OSS, FLOSS, and FOSS?
OSS = Open Source Software FLOSS = Free/Libre/Open Source Software FOSS = Free/Open Source Software
All of these terms describe nearly the same sort of software, and are often used interchangeably, but there are two main camps, and the proponents behind each focus on different things. Free Software is a social movement, concerned with user freedoms. It is much aligned with library values. Open source started more as a marketing campaign, highlighting the pragmatism of a certain kind of development process/culture, and it tries to sidestep the ambiguity of the word "free" in English (consider the distinction between Free as in Beer and Free as in Speech, gratis versus libre. Free as in Kittens is a different tangent altogether–all things have some sort of "cost", and all software is kittens, free or otherwise). FLOSS tries to encompasses both camps and not choose between the two.
The original Evergreen developers advocated the GPL license for both pragmatic and philosophical reasons. In practice, Evergreen gets described as OSS in the U.S., mostly due to its power as a brand, and FLOSS elsewhere.
For more information and viewpoints, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FLOSS, http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.html, and http://opensource.org/
I tried OSS once and it wasn't very good. Is all OSS created equally?
Open source software varies in quality–just like its proprietary counterparts. Each software product should be evaluated on its own merits.
What are some of the common characteristics of enterprise-quality OSS?
Look for a program that is written in modern programming languages, features modular, scalable service-oriented architecture, has a large, growing developer community, and has healthy, growing adoption rates.
How can I participate in open-source communities?
There are many ways to participate. If your library has developers, you can contribute "sweat equity" to a project such as Evergreen, VuFind, Blacklight, etc. Your library can also elect to adopt an OSS product for use.
What is "FUD?"
FUD is an acronym for Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. Some vendors of proprietary software spread FUD about open source software as a way to discredit OSS. The characteristics of FUD are similar to that of urban legends: the claims are generally vague, sweeping, and elusive.
Is it true that…
Open source software could prevent my library from passing a financial audit?
Some vendors of proprietary software have attempted to alarm librarians by inferring that OSS "can't be audited" or that government agents would sweep down on a library using OSS, claiming OSS wasn't robust enough for financial data-gathering. This is very deep FUD, since as noted above, OSS is so widely-trusted that government agencies such as NSA use it.
In fact, most commercial proprietary library software programs use OSS products in their own code. If they trust it, you can too.
OSS "isn't ready for prime time?"
This statement is intended to suggest that OSS is "too new" to be trusted. However, many open source programs have been around for over a decade. Furthermore, maturity is not always a plus for software; some of the problems with proprietary library software include its reliance on ancient legacy code that limits the features and future development path for the products.
OSS is harder to install and maintain than proprietary software?
It's worth noting that one library system recently announced that it "only" took six months to migrate to its new proprietary software, while at the University of Prince Edward Island, director Mark Leggott and staff migrated the catalog for the Robertson Library to Evergreen in a month.
For library software, our observation is that beyond a certain size, most large library organizations end up investing significant money and staff time in migrating to, maintaining, and developing their library systems.