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Seven pitfalls of using open source software (and how to avoid them)

Open-source software is any software whose developers have permitted the code to be freely used, modified, and distributed. While using open-source software has many benefits—such as greater flexibility and potentially lower costs—it could also have drawbacks and challenges.

Let's discuss seven pitfalls of using open-source software, and how to address each of them.

Seven challenges of open-source software

1. Total cost of ownership

  • Pitfall: Although open-source software is technically free, the total cost of ownership (TCO) can be hard to measure and quantify. Companies may need to invest time and effort in training employees to use the software, hire additional staff members with specific expertise, or perform support and maintenance on the software.

  • Solution: Businesses should carefully estimate the costs of open-source software as part of their IT budget.

2. Software licensing

  • Pitfall: Not all open-source software licenses are created equal. Some projects can be used in any manner (i.e., for commercial or non-profit purposes). However, other projects have a license that requires derivative works to be released as open-source software as well. This restriction is known as copyleft.

  • Solution: Business managers should stay on top of the different open-source software applications that developers use and ensure compliance with their licenses.

3. Lack of support

  • Pitfall: While some open-source software projects offer paid access to in-depth IT support, others do not. If you encounter bugs or technical issues, you could potentially depend on a community of volunteers to solve these problems.

  • Solution: Businesses should research the level of support available for an open-source project and consider purchasing a support contract if necessary.

4. Lack of documentation

  • Pitfall: Open-source software may have incomplete, uninformative, or out-of-date documentation. This creates significant barriers for users other than the original developers to adopt and contribute to the software.

  • Solution: Businesses should investigate the amount and quality of documentation available before adopting an open-source project.

5. Security vulnerabilities

  • Pitfall: Open-source software can suffer from undiscovered security vulnerabilities. Once a flaw is identified, users are at the mercy of the project’s developers to provide a security patch quickly before malicious actors can exploit it.

  • Solution: Users should check open-source software using a vulnerability scanning tool and consider working with an IT security managed services provider.

6. Dependency issues

  • Pitfall: Many open-source software projects are built on top of other projects, creating a complicated web of dependencies. This may introduce unexpected behavior, such as bugs or security vulnerabilities.

  • Solution: Businesses should check which dependencies an open-source project requires before adopting it and be prepared to work with any dependency issues.

7. Performance issues

  • Pitfall: Open-source software can suffer from unexpected performance issues. This makes diagnosing and fixing the software challenging without in-depth familiarity with the code base.

  • Solution: Companies should test open-source software in a staging environment before deploying it in production and reach out to the project’s community for troubleshooting.

(Image courtesy: Unsplash)

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