Open Source CAN Be Sustainable — Especially in International Development

By Reid M. Porter and Peter L. Levin

International development professionals are no strangers to open source software. Indeed, their enthusiasm for investing in open source tools is rivaled only by their enthusiasm for investing in open data. Occasionally this open-all-the-things enthusiasm overextends itself, leading many to doubt the long-term sustainability of the model given the prevalence of abandonware, the reality of short donor funding cycles, and the risks of relying on a still-maturing community of OS-developers-for-development. To oversimplify the debate, it seems that development professionals are left with two equally unappetizing choices — the anarchic anything-goes landscape of open source tools and their discarded detritus, or the well-governed yet rigid utopia of proprietary systems perpetuated by profit-seeking companies and license fees.

Happily, there is plenty of room between the two horns of that dilemma. Open source software does not necessarily preclude profit or long-term sustainability. For us, the bottom line is the bottom line, which is to say that we make good money as merchants of open source code.

We want to be clear that we have nothing against proprietary software products. Heck, we use them ourselves, and we encourage our friends to use them too. That said, we find zero — absolutely zero — tension between delivering an open source product, running a for-profit company, and providing sustainable services to our clients.

As Herb Caudill noted in The Revolution Will Not be Open Source, “…there’s nothing more sustainable in the long term than a profitable company providing a service that people are willing to pay for.” We couldn’t agree more. As an open source software company, we are by definition in the business of technology services. We prototype new systems, host and maintain existing ones, and provide operational support (training, helpdesk, etc.) to users of the products we develop. As long as we provide the best service possible, our clients remain clients, and we get to keep the lights on.

That’s not to say it’s easy. If proprietary companies feel competitive market pressure on all sides, then open source companies feel that pressure up close and personal. Our clients are free to walk out the door at any time with their data and our code. To say that keeps us on our toes is an understatement, but it works — we recruit talented like-minded people, and we have many loyal customers.

One service we provide our customers is software customization. Open source products are built to be customizable — by you, by us, or by some other developer. Customers of proprietary software typically have two options: change your workflow to match the software, or change the software to match your workflow. The former is a cultural challenge (or worse), and the latter can be expensive, because the vendor essentially has you stuck paying their per-hour prices for modifications and enhancements. If you like your software vendor, and they give you good rates for new development, maybe you’re OK with that. But consider concession prices at, say, airports, stadiums, and concert venues, and you’ll agree that captive audiences aren’t always treated fairly. That’s what it means to be “locked in” to a particular vendor. Open source software completely obviates the problem.

We create open source code because it has proven to be a successful business model for us and because we want to lower the barrier for people to use our stuff. We are profitable because we provide better services, better support, and better software than our competitors.

In our experience, open source software isn’t any less sustainable than proprietary software. The differentiating advantage of open source software is, quite simply, one less barrier to adoption by development organizations. What could be more sustainable than that?

Reid M. Porter is an Associate Director at Amida Technology Solutions and an international M&E professional.

Peter L. Levin is the CEO of Amida Technology Solutions and the former CTO at the Department of Veterans Affairs.