Home | About NISO | Blog

Archive for November 2nd, 2009

Open Source isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK. Proprietary Systems aren’t for everyone, and that’s OK too.

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Last week, there was a small dust up in the community about a “leaked” document from one of the systems suppliers in the community about issues regarding Open Source (OS) software.  The merits of the document itself aren’t nearly as interesting as the issues surrounding it and the reactions from the community.  The paper outlined from the company’s perspective the many issues that face organizations that choose an open source solution as well as the benefits to proprietary software.  Almost immediately after the paper was released on Wikileaks, the OS community pounced on its release as “spreading FUD {i.e., Fear Uncertainty and Doubt}” about OS solutions.  This is a description OS supporters use for corporate communications that support the use and benefits of proprietary solutions.

From my mind the first interesting issue is that there is a presumption that any one solution is the “right” one, and the sales techniques from both communities understandably presume that each community’s approach is best for everyone.  This is almost never the case in a marketplace as large, broad and diverse as the US library market.  Each approach has it’s own strengths AND weaknesses and the community should work to understand what those strengths and weaknesses are, from both sides.  A clearer understanding and discussion of those qualities should do much to improve both options for the consumers.  There are potential issues with OS software, such as support, bug fixing, long-term sustainability, and staffing costs that implementers of OS options need to consider.  Similarly, proprietary options could have problems with data lock-in, interoperability challenges with other systems, and customization limitations.   However, each too has their strengths.  With OS these include and openness and an opportunity to collaboratively problem solve with other users and an infinite customizability.  Proprietary solutions provide a greater level of support and accountability, a mature support and development environment, and generally known fixed costs.

During the NISO Library Resources Management Systems educational forum in Boston last month, part of the program was devoted to a discussion of whether an organization should build or buy LRMS system.  There were certainly positives and downsides described from each approach.  The point that was driven home for me is that each organization’s situation is different and each team brings distinct skills that could push an organization in one direction or another.  Each organization needs to weigh the known and potential costs against their needs and resources.  A small public library might not have the technical skills to tweak OS systems in a way that is often needed.  A mid-sized institution might have staff that are technically expert enough to engage in an OS project.  A large library might be able to reallocate resources, but want the support commitments that come with a proprietary solution.  One positive thing about the marketplace for library systems is the variety of options and choices available to management.

Last year, during the Charleston Conference during a discussion of Open Source, I made the comment that, yes, everyone could build their own car, but why would they.  I personally don’t have the skills or time to build my own, I rely on large car manufacturers to do so for me.  When it breaks, I bring it to a specialized mechanic who knows how to fix it.  On the other hand, I have friends who do have the skills to build and repair cars. They save lots of money doing their own maintenance and have even built sports cars and made a decent amount of money doing so.  That doesn’t make one approach right or wrong, better or worse.  Unfortunately, people frequently let these value judgments color the debate about costs and benefits. As with everything where people have a vested interest in a project’s success, there are strong passions in the OS solutions debate.

What make these systems better for everyone is that there are common data structures and a common language for interacting.  Standards such as MARC, Z39.50, and OpenURL, among others make the storage, discovery and delivery of library content more functional and more interoperable.  As with all standards, they may not be perfect, but they have served the community well and provide an example of how we can as a community move forward in a collaborative way.

For all of the complaints hurled at the proprietary systems vendors (rightly or wrongly), they do a tremendous amount to support the development of voluntary consensus standards, which all systems are using.  Interoperability among library systems couldn’t take place without them.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the OS community.  As Carl Grant, President of Ex Libris, made the point during the vendor roundtable in Boston, “How many of the OS support vendors and suppliers are members of and participants in NISO?”  Unfortunately, the answer to that question is “None” as yet.  Given how critical open standards are to the smooth functioning of these systems, it is surprising that they haven’t engaged in standards development.  We certainly would welcome their engagement and support.

The other issue that is raised about the release of this document is its provenance.  I’ll discuss that in my next post.