What Is Open Source

The following was written for Open Y by Jeb Weisman, CIO of YMCA of Long Island.


Open Source and Who Is Getting Rich...


1. What is Open Source

Open Source is part of a technology movement, decades old. The central idea is that the best technology tools are ones where the user can actually see the underlying, “moving parts.” This idea started with software programmers. Those programmers wrote (and write), “source code,” the guts of software. And so, giving people open access to software source code became known as “Open Source.” Customers and other software users could look at their open source code and identify bugs, make improvements, and share the better code. A great idea. Open Source stands in contrast to closed source proprietary code that requires you to blindly trust its producers.


2. Is Open Source software free?

Not necessarily. Open Source means you have a right to see the software code. But it does not define who owns the software other than the developer, how they choose to distribute it (give it away, share it with expectations of others to share, or even sell/license the application’s use), or expectations about sharing innovations and improvements. People often think of Open Source as free of fees, but free/cost is actually determined by the license agreement and the source code’s owners. The takeaway is that the Open Source software license is the point at which software costs are determined. [see for example https://opensource.org/licenses ].


3. What about Drupal and what about Open Y software?

Drupal is Open Source software for managing online content, a CMS. It draws on all sort of other software tools for hosting websites, managing value-added features, and so on. Drupal costs absolutely no money to download and use. Open Y’s project takes Drupal and adds features that are unique to the needs of Ys (Drupal’s Open Source license allows this). Consistent branding features, integration with some of the CRMs common among Ys, and a growing list of tools and capabilities are among the things that have been added to Open Y’s Drupal version or what is technically known as a branch or fork. So, both Drupal and Open Y’s Drupal are open source because you can freely see the source code.


4. But does it cost something?

No and Yes and No. Drupal is freely distributed. End of story. Open Y, likewise, charges nothing but expects those who use it to contribute innovations if they have any. So, for example, if you come up with a clever design solution to present the complex lists of programs and classes your Y offers, that design that you developed might be a contribution to the Open Y software toolset. So yes, it cost you something in time and effort to create that innovation, but no, you aren’t paying any money to Open Y. It’s a community approach.


5. Ok, but how does that, “sweat equity,” get paid for?

The Open Source tradition goes back to the days when programmers – often people called systems administrators -- would create something as part of their job. Not a product for the company to sell, but something that made their work easier, faster, or more efficient. They’d share it with friends – other systems administrators who used and improved the invention -- and that tradition continues today. Therefore, a good deal of the cost of free Open Source software, like Drupal and Open Y’s fork, is simply absorbed in people’s day-to-day worlds. However, the Y isn’t really a tech organization and there aren’t that many Open Source developers to contribute code. So Open Y currently draws on grants and corporate philanthropists and sympathizers, as well as a genuine entrepreneurial spirit to fund the work. Eventually, Open Y will become its own entity and through its Board and user base (all of us out here in Y-Land) will decide how best to support the Open Y community’s work


6. I’m not convinced. In this day and age, someone is making money. Show me the money?

Setting contributed effort – sweat equity – aside, there are folks making money off of this. If you hire a graphic artist, web developer or content producer to help you customize and implement your Open Y Drupal instance, you are paying them. Likewise, if you contract a hosting company to house and secure your Open Y web server, you are paying them. In other words, most of the groups who would make money building any website for you are making money, though whether it’s more or less depends on many factors outside of the scope of this document.


7. If I’m paying people to build my Open Y website, where’s the value over a non-Open Y site?

Ah, this is the beauty of a community of users. If every user of CRM software had to pay for the APIs – the things that connect one product to another -- for their content management system (e.g., Drupal) to be custom built, that would make the API developers rich, but it would also cost all the Ys a lot of money over time. But, since all of the CRM companies are programming against one version of Drupal, Open Y’s, they can do it less expensively over time, sort of like mass production. Likewise, one Y’s innovation gets contributed so new ideas don’t cost everyone else more money. And of course, when software bugs are found or improvements are made, whether in Drupal, APIs, or something similar or newly invented, everyone gets to benefit.

In addition, because everyone is working on a software system that below the surface is similar, there is a community of users maintaining, updating, and enhancing the system. Those types of savings are typically part of a real Return On Investment (ROI) calculation. A real ROI analysis takes into account not only the immediate dollars and cents of something, but the “Opportunity Costs,” of a project – the hidden costs we often don’t see. For example, if your custom website stops working, your tech folks have to focus on it. That means they aren’t doing something like supporting end-user PCs. That is an example of an opportunity cost which can be hard to identify or directly calculate but can have a major hidden impact on your operations. For the Open Y community, every Y is watching the website software and so is likely to have resolved the issue or at least provide quicker tech support.

Finally, the Open Y model has a well-defined branding element. While you can add your own visual personality to your website, the general organization and design is consistent throughout. If someone visits another Open Y site they understand the Y is a national community, as well as a long-term partner in their specific local world. It reinforces our national mission and reinforces a strong local connection.


8. I heard someone paid a lot more for their Open Y website than they expected. What’s that about?

To be honest, that is an impossible question to answer. Websites, really substantive and sophisticated ones, often cost much more than something you’d put together on Wordpress or the like. Open Y helps you to do a lot more, so often people end up investing in many capabilities that will serve their members, but might not have been possible or available otherwise. Likewise, most large web projects are under-budgeted. The real keys to the cost of your website are planning, being clear about what you want and how you’ll get there, and strong project management. The over budget and high-cost stories tend to reflect a weakness in these areas, rather than in apple-to-apples development costs. When you figure in the advantages described above, the two paths aren’t really comparable.


9. What else should I know?

That is a very open question. All Open Source, free software projects draw strength from active, large-scale engagement with a strong central management process to coordinate activities. The more people and the more they contribute to the shared pool of tools and effort, the cheaper, better, and more efficient things become. It’s like pioneers, followed by early settlers, then lots of settlers, leading to towns and cities, and on. As each group joins, the way is better defined, more services are available, costs drop, and the community grows stronger and more varied. The best place to start for Open Y is http://www.openymca.org/ . Ask questions, join the community, make your decision, and help everyone benefit.