Fear of Open Source


Big companies tend to go for big companies such as Microsoft or Oracle when it comes to supporting their IT needs. The main reason is exactly that : support. Your contract will always ensure that whenever something goes badly wrong with your systems and your internal support can’t handle it, then there’s always the option of big brother giving you a helping hand.

So far, so good.

Most of the time it doesn’t really matter too much which system you’re going for, provided you have a sensible balance between fitness for purpose and a small enough number of systems that can be supported. But what I’ve seen happen over time is that anything that has a whiff of being “non-standard” gets the evil stare.

Take for instance the Hot Mill Systems guys at Port Talbot’s hot strip Mill, who for reasons that were hidden in the mists of time (but probably had something to do with the fact that Martin Doyle was more familiar with Linux boxes and the languages such as Perl and php that go with it) did not fit in with the Process Control set-up of the time which consisted of Windows servers, Visual Basic and ASP.

At one point someone from the hot mills management team had been approached by the Process Control manager to see whether a switch from their open source set-up to the standard Process Control could be considered. That question was passed on to me, to which my reply was : “Do you realise how many thousands of web pages alone would have to be rewritten in order to make the conversion?” Not that it would be impossible to convert existing php pages to ASP, but it would be a mammoth task that would take a whole team several months just for the sake of tidiness, with no new functionality to show for it.

Mind you, at a later stage when I was asked to rewrite the morning meeting pages I did so in ASP.NET, not only because I had got out of the habit of writing web pages in php, but also because the added functionality I could achieve in .NET. However, the decision was made on practical rather than ideological grounds.

On the other hand, if you spoke to Process Control, and even more so to the business analysts in a GIS, the whole concept of open source was complete anathema, and to be avoided at all costs. Maybe this was because they were system administrators but not coders, and maybe felt that they might be out of their depth if there was not the security of a well-supported back-up solution.

This knee-jerk aversion to open source became clear to me when I was considering whether it would be possible to change from our existing Sharepoint wiki to MediaWiki which, since it is the software supporting Wikipedia, I considered to be the industry standard. At the time I was looking for a wiki solution that might be more user-friendly than the Sharepoint set-up, and thought that the ease of adding images, as well as the availability of discussion pages and automatic indexing at the top of an article made MediaWiki a strong candidate to migrate to.

So I put some feelers out to see whether there was any chance to try MediaWiki out as an alternative to our existing Sharepoint wiki. No sooner had I broached my proposal that the shutters came down – in the analyst’s words: we don’t do open source. No point arguing, it appeared to be a dogma that never mind how useful a piece of software might be, if it was open source, it did not get past the first hurdle. End of.

Never mind that in my opinion MediaWiki IS the standard when it comes to wikis, because it is open source you could not even get to the point of discussing the relative merits and demerits of the old and the proposed solution. Which is a real shame.

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