Why Open Source?
Article originally published in Computer Tracker magazine.
The compelling argument for using Open Source software
A recent article in Business in Vancouver (BIV) detailed the demise of local web developer Stratford Internet Technologies. The company has recently posted bankruptcy notice on its locked doors.
According to the BIV article, a company source noted that smaller Web developers that have invested in new technology can offer services at prices a fraction of what Stratford could offer. He points to the example of the web site that Stratford built for the David Suzuki Foundation. Updating that site from a collection of static HTML files to a dynamic database that can be updated easily would cost Stratford about $100,000. Smaller companies with the latest technology could do it for about $17,000 he said.”
This article got me thinking about our own web development company’s direction away from proprietary software, towards Open Source standards.
When we went looking at the available languages for web application development, we had our pick of some great tools including Microsoft Active Server Pages technology (ASP), Cold Fusion and Blue World’s Lasso. When we looked at the cost of implementing these solutions on a server however, we noticed that they substantially increased the cost of developing a web application for our clients.
Selection of language also can limit the available web hosts to deploy a website on. We looked at the different web hosting options available. Checking through the ads in publications such as the Computer Tracker, The Computer Paper and PC Magazine, we found a cross section of hosting companies actively promoting their services. We then logged onto their websites and drilled down to see what technologies they offered. Windows NT/2000 is fairly widely available, but there is usually a premium in cost. Of the companies we looked at over 70% of them offered a Linux solution, with PHP and MySQL With most companies surveyed, it is more economical to host monthly on a Linux box than on an equivalent Microsoft solution.
This premium for monthly web hosting cost is related to the web hosts capital outlay in purchasing a license of Windows 2000 or NT, and a copy of MS SQL. The middleware, ASP and the web server are included in the cost. Even with that, the cost of Windows NT or 2000 and MS SQL Server can add a minimum of about $3,000 to the cost of a server. Contrast this with a Linux setup. Cost of the Operating System: Zero dollars. Cost of the Database software MySQL: Zero dollars. Cost of the middleware PHP: Zero dollars. Cost of the web server Apache: Zero dollars.
In fact, the cost can go even higher when using a database program like Oracle, which actually licenses their software based on the megahertz of the server’s chip and the number of processors in the server computer. Microsoft licenses their software by the number of processors.
This significant cost differential hasn’t been lost on web hosting providers or web application developers. According to both Netcraft (http://www.netcraft.net/) and Security Space’s http://www.securityspace.com/s_survey/data/index.html) internet surveys, the Open Source web server Apache is the leading web server software with close to 60% of the market for publicly accessable web servers. In both surveys, Apache is also growing faster than other platforms. Microsoft is down around 20 or 30% depending on which survey you look at. Even more interesting is the Weighted Web Server Share, which, like the search engine Google, tracks web servers based on the number of links they have from other websites. This approach lowers both Microsoft IIS (down to 13%) and Apache (35%). The numbers may be a little skewed on overall market share, as many corporate websites are done using Microsoft only technologies, but they are not accessible to these surveys, which just look at the open internet, not inside intranets.
Of the websites using Apache, according to a sub report on Security Space, the most popular Apache add-on modules is the “middleware” language PHP. At close to 40%, beating out the long time favorite Perl, at just 12%.
Although it is nice to know that market forces are aligning behind Apache, PHP and MySQL, it wasn’t the sole criteria for our selection. We didn’t actually pick PHP based on this popularity approach, rather we had a look at our options, eliminated the proprietary languages and focussed on PHP, Perl, Java and JSP and then looked at our own programming style. PHP was the closest to what we had been doing, having a less steep learning curve and development time frame than Java. Perl we viewed as a powerful, but dense technology that would be too difficult for our clients to modify. PHP it was.
PC Magazine (Oct 30th, 2000) in a survey of the options notes that “php has come flying up through the ranks to emerge as the preferred Linux Web scripting language. It’s had especially big momentum this year with the release of PHP 4, which included a new scripting engine and standardized key parts of the language (such as HTTP session management) that were add-on modules before” http://www.zdnet.com/eweek/stories/general/0,11011,2646052,00.html)Â
Selecting a data source was less of an issue with SQL databases, they are all similar enough to allow us to change database sources as need be. For now we are using MySQL, but can also backend to other databases, including Postgres, MS SQL or even Oracle if need be.
If your company is thinking about developing a web application, it is important to be involved in the decision making process and the selection of a web development environment. While we will still do programming in whatever language our customers want us to, given a choice, we would recommend Open Source tools. For anything we develop on our own, our new platforms of choice are Apache, MySQL and PHP. I can see why Microsoft’s Windows OS chief Jim Allchin, recently quipped about the purportedly “un-American” characteristics of non-proprietary software. Microsoft should be worried. )
Douglas Alder is President of HomeBase Internet Publishing Ltd in Vancouver. HomeBase Internet www.hbase.net) specializes in web application development. He was the founder and publisher of The Computer Paper for ten years. He can be reached at HomeBase Internet Tel 604-638-0668, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org