InteractiveGIS: What Is Open Source?

What is Open Source?

Imagine if Microsoft made Windows source code-the language the software is written in-available for anyone to see, download, and modify. Imagine anyone could make improvements to the software, give copies to their friends, and use their modified versions on any PC. Now imagine there’s only one restriction-that the source code for all those modified versions has to be made available to the public as well.

Windows sure would be fantastic, wouldn’t it?

Microsoft may not move toward this Utopian vision anytime soon. But many other programmers and software companies already have. This is Open Source, software created by communities of programmers who collaborate, share ideas, and improve upon each other’s work.

How Does Open Source Work?

Open Source software is developed and improved upon over time by large groups of programmers. Here’s an overview of the typical path an Open Source program may take.

The big idea. A software developer has an idea for a piece of software that would solve a specific problem. He starts to write the code.

Going public. The developer uploads this code to an Open Source site where other developers can see it, download it, and take a crack at solving the same problem.

The more ideas, the better. Over time, developers interested in the project play with the code, share ideas, and modify the original software. A piece of software can be written initially to solve one problem, then be expanded to solve many others.

Finished product. When an Open Source project is considered finished, it’s made available for the public to download, free of charge.

Common Misconceptions About Open Source

Many people who aren’t familiar with Open Source hold certain misconceptions about it, and some may look on it as less legitimate than commercial software. Here are a few common myths and misconceptions about Open Source software-and the truth behind them.

Myth: Open Source software isn’t created by professionals.

Fact: Open Source software is written by professional programmers, many of whom work for proprietary software companies. And it’s all perfectly legal, even encouraged by the companies.

There’s a common misconception that Open Source programmers are pajama-wearing amateurs and students working out of dorm rooms. In fact, many programmers work on Open Source projects as part of their jobs. Many proprietary companies depend on Open Source software for part of their operations- it’s very cost-effective-and have their own programmers customize the software to fit company needs.

Open Source licensing agreements require these company programmers to make their modifications available to the Open Source community.

In addition, professional programmers from many different companies sometimes come together to create solutions to problems through Open Source. Apache, for example, was created by a community of professional network administrators and programmers who had a need for web server software that was reliable and affordable.

Some Open Source programmers are motivated by monetary gain. As a programmer, if you write an Open Source program, the code is available to all. But if a big company or organization wants you to modify your program for their use, you can charge them to do it. Many programmers write Open Source code and then hire themselves out to organizations for customization.

Myth: Open Source is a brand-new, untested method of software development.

Fact: Open Source has been around since the beginning of computers themselves.

It’s not uncommon for Open Source to be perceived as a new, unproven Web 2.0 trend. Actually, Open Source was the default programming method as far back as the 1960’s. Programmers, students and professors at places like Stanford, MIT and Berkeley all shared their coding ideas freely. Without it, computing as we know it might not exist today.

Myth: Open Source software doesn’t adhere to the same standards as commercial software.

Fact: Open Source software is often held to the same stringent industry standards that commercial software companies are required to uphold.

Our core spatial engine, MapServer, is based on Open Source technology originally developed by NASA-and it’s a perfect example of Open Source software following industry standards.

MapServer is designed to support Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) standards. The OGC is an international consensus organization that designs and recommends worldwide standards for GIS data processing, data exchange, and geospatial services. Participation is voluntary, so not every commercial GIS program adheres to the standards-but ours does.

Myth: Open Source software is substandard compared to proprietary software.

Fact: Because there are so many people making improvements to the code, Open Source software packages are often more secure and robust than proprietary software. Hundreds of professional programmers critique the code, test it for flaws, and take steps to improve it. At proprietary companies, the software isn’t seen and tested by so many different programmers.

There’s a misconception out there that Open Source is a “fake” or “toy” version of a real, proprietary software package-and that it doesn’t contain all the features and functionality that commercial software has.

However, it’s not uncommon for Open Source software to have more options and better functionality than commercial software-simply because dozens or even hundreds of programmers modify popular Open Source programs for their own companies’ use, and then make those modifications available to everyone.

Who Uses Open Source Software?

The better question is, who doesn’t? Open Source software is used by governments, businesses in almost every industry, nonprofits, and research institutions worldwide. A complete list would be too long to print here-so here are just a few examples of companies and organizations you’ve heard of that use Open Source software and participate in the community.

  • The State of Massachusetts declared in September, 2005, that all official government documents must be in OpenDocument format-an Open Source replacement for Microsoft Word.
  • The Federal Government has been slow to adopt Open Source software, but that hasn’t stopped many states from using it for internal documents and applications, including New York, Rhode Island, Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota.
  • The U.S. Census Bureau uses MySQL, Linux, Apache, and PHP-all Open Source software-to manage the data from its vast surveys of the U.S. population.
  • NASA develops its own software and makes its source code available via Open Source. For more information about Open Source software developed by NASA, click here.
  • Open Source software is used by many well-known e-commerce companies including Google, Lycos, eBay, Craigslist, Ticketmaster, Yahoo!, Evite, Friend Finder Network, ClassMates, and CitySearch.

How InteractiveGIS Uses Open Source – And How Our Customers Benefit

At InteractiveGIS, Inc., we rely on Open Source software-and we’re proud of it. We use MapServer, a software application developed by NASA and released to the public under an Open Source licensing agreement, as the core spatial engine that powers our maps and databases.

Open Source software isn’t just good for our company-it’s great for our clients. Here are just a few of the benefits Open Source software brings to the organizations we work with.

Lower cost. One of the biggest benefits of Open Source software is the difference in cost. Our use of Open Source software means we can charge significantly less than proprietary software companies do— some of our clients see savings of $25,000 or more.

Commercial GIS software companies charge thousands simply for the price of their software. Compare that to InteractiveGIS. Most of our software is Open Source and completely free of charge. In addition, many of the expensive add-ons you could pay thousands for with the commercial companies come free with us.

Simply put, we save a bundle using and modifying free Open Source software-software that adheres to the same standards commercial software uses -and we pass those savings on to you.

Greater flexibility. Our competitors go through an exhaustive process to make even the smallest modifications to their standard package. We can make the same changes within days-sometimes within hours.

In addition, we don’t charge high prices for customization-in many cases, we don’t charge at all. This gives our clients the flexibility to order a completely customized GIS package that suits their needs perfectly-without going over-budget.

Endless innovation. We rely on the Open Source community for inspiration and programming innovation. If we can’t find a solution, someone in our network of thousands of programmers around the world can. Our connections with the Open Source community allow us to back up the promise we make to our customers: if you can imagine it, we can program for it.

Compatibility. MapServer relies on MySQL, PostgreSQL, and their Open Source extensions to operate. But that doesn’t mean it can’t operate with proprietary formats as well. MapServer is fully compatible with popular proprietary file formats, including Shapefile. This allows our clients to migrate their data seamlessly over to our system- without losing any data.