Open Source - Opens Doors

By Tyler Mitchell

_Early in my GIS career, I wanted to produce digital maps at home. Of course, I couldn't use tools I had access to at work due to licensing and cost restrictions.This led me to investigate open source GIS and mapping alternatives.I dove in and never looked back.

In fact, what began as a hobby has become a strategic resource in my consultancy work.I am bringing open source tools into the corporate enterprise to replace or augment proprietary tools.It is rather ironic that proprietary licensing pushed me to find alternatives and that these alternatives are, in turn, supplanting the proprietary.

The benefits of open source are a stark contrast to closed source options, particularly in the high-priced world of GIS software.The following is a general overview of some positive benefits of open source software.

What Is Open Source GIS?
Open source software refers to software projects that have the programming source code openly available for others to use.It is free to use and customise, and is generally unrestricted in its application.

Think of your favourite GIS and mapping programs for desktop analysis, web-based mapping, command line data conversion and geospatial application programming.Then consider what it would be like to have complete freedom to distribute and customise those tools, with no licensing fees.Would it be encouraging, profitable and maybe even fun? For me it was all three and more.Open source software reminded me of why I studied GIS in the first place: to investigate the world around me, for business or for pleasure.

Open source GIS and mapping projects are akin to thousands of other open source software projects, such as those hosted by SourceForge.The principles they hold to are summed up well by the Open Source Initiative.Their site provides in-depth articles and discussions about open source software.

Clearing the Open Air
The word "open," when referring to software, is sometimes misunderstood and can mean different things to different people.In software development there are two primary distinctions, one being open source software, and the other being open standards or protocols, designed to enhance interoperability.The term "Open GIS" usually refers to the work of the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC).

The OGC provides specifications for sharing geospatial data and connecting applications, and has but only a loose connection with open source software.In particular, OGC's specifications are freely available, just as open source programs are, and some open source projects implement those specifications.

If you are confused about the difference between open standards and open source software, you are not alone.In some cases it is particularly vague, implying the benefits of "open source" when it is merely a reference to being able to share information with others.

Why Consider Open Source Software
Using or developing open source software has five advantages, which I list below. This is not to suggest it is suitable for everyone.Your business model, client base or other factors may not fit well with an open source philosophy.A program you need may not be mature enough to use in mission-critical applications, or your company might not have the required internal expertise.

Many projects have active communities.Support may come from email lists, live Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels, commercial support packages, books, etc.The most powerful aspect of the open source community is that others also want the product to succeed.You have instant allies for troubleshooting and sharing ideas.Volunteer support is nothing new, even for proprietary products, but the striking difference is that your voice is heard and appreciated.You will probably even communicate with the programmer in charge of the project.

When deficiencies are noticed, the discoverer is able to help define the problem or even fix it.Developers of the project have publicly accessible bug tracking tools that users are encouraged to populate. Like-minded users and developers are able to work together, sharing code or the costs of funding program improvements that neither could afford individually. Open source communities are active, encouraging, a great source for finding new ideas and often the first to see innovate applications of technology being developed.

Open source communities and projects encourage innovation.New ideas, needs and problems you think are important are probably already on the minds of others.Together, you can better define needs and suggest changes to the developers.

Innovation is key for competitive business.There are innovative applications for technology using closed source products, but only as far as the product itself can be stretched.With open source projects, the underlying technology can be improved and customised, giving you a more competitive edge.Customised software is in high demand.This demand cannot be easily met by closed source programs.

Open source projects use a variety of licensing methods.Some are more restrictive than others, but all aim to provide greater freedom. The most common licensing limitation involves incorporating code into your own proprietary product.Some open source licenses require you to make your changes publicly available.For average users, this will never be a problem.

In all cases, the freedom extends to allowing you to use as many copies of the software, on as many computers, by as many people as you want.Contrast this with the closed source model where every possible way of limiting users is employed to produce revenue from licensing fees based on the number of users, computers, CPU, amount of use and so on.

The increased freedom for programmers is undeniable. Rather than developing a whole project from scratch, existing open source products or libraries can be used.Previously developed code can be incorporated, speeding up project development.A programmer may also choose to share a product with others, and in turn receive help maintaining it.

Freedom to deliver products in many different ways makes open source a strategic option for companies looking to keep their clients happy.For example, in the open source world you could use a product like MapServer to serve up a mapping program to a client.You could also take that product and install it on the client's own network.You could make it more of a stand-alone product, running only on your client's desktop computer.You could put it on a CD or flash memory card and pass it around, etc.You get the idea.You have the freedom to choose how to deliver a product.Clients appreciate the sense of ownership and flexibility.

Any time you combine community, innovation and freedom, projects tend to be much more interesting, even fun.Many open source users really enjoy being involved in community-based projects.Single person consultancies can find it an opportunity to work with other programmers.For corporations, staff are able to interact with others in the field who share the same needs and interests.Working with a broader community than your local sphere can be very satisfying.

Some believe that the more expensive a product is, the better it is."You get what you pay for" doesn't always hold true.Open source alleviates stress by reducing the cost.You can then focus on the real tasks at hand: implementation and customisation.

Costs for open source software are as good as it gets - free.You are not charged for using, improving or implementing open source software.

Because the code is openly accessible, you can reduce costs by choosing to program internally rather than outsourcing.Likewise, if you are not in a position to do modifications, you can hire expert programmers who are familiar with the product, or others that you know.

When you hire an open source developer, you are guaranteed access to the product long after that programmer is finished.Contrast this with closed source applications.Move away from the parent company and your investment is lost.With open source you have all the code you paid to develop and can pass it on to another consultant in the future.

Cost ties into all the other aspects mentioned in this article, especially innovation.Combining the benefits of licensing and costs, you have an incredible opportunity to provide innovative solutions. When costs and licensing are no longer a barrier, unlimited possibilities are before you.

Other advantages
When source code is available, it can be ported to other operating systems and hardware platforms that a vendor might never support.

Longevity and stability are another positive aspect.By having access to the source code you can choose what version to use and when to upgrade.You can even take your version of choice and continue to develop it on your own if desired.

There are many open source GIS and mapping products available. Below are a few good links to help you explore the options.

Published Saturday, June 18th, 2005

Written by Tyler Mitchell

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