A series of UK government-sponsored trials into open source implementations produced some interesting results. The trials found that open source application software used for specific tasks is often fit for purpose and that buying specialist software can lead buyers to suffer "hidden lock-in."
If your users feel that there are open source programs that would benefit your organization, then it is certainly worth investigating them further. I would recommend, however, that you conduct a controlled trial rather that let your users "experiment." Allowing users to freely download software that has not been correctly assessed and tested can lead to programs that contain malware or spyware being installed inadvertently. By setting up a managed user group to review approved applications, you can supervise who can install which programs. You can also monitor any system compatibility and usability issues.
While assessing a software application, it is important to review what the software does, ensure that its functionality matches your requirements for a particular task, and understand what help and support is provided. You need to be sure that you have the in-house skills and resources to support any additional applications that you allow your users to install and use. And, of course, files generated by office-type applications need to be compatible with the mainstream applications used by your clients and vendors.
Although open source software is less likely to be targeted by hackers than mainstream applications, subscribe to any product newsletters; these will keep you abreast of any security alerts. Also read and understand the open source license under which it is distributed and how it can be used. Open source software is not the answer to every situation, but some applications have been around for several years, won numerous awards, and can offer a viable alternative to organizations on a tight budget.
This was first published in March 2008