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Open source software is massively popular, but it has shortcomings—such as installation challenges and security risks—that MSPs can help to address.
January 21, 2018
Open source software is more popular and user-friendly than ever. But it’s not perfect. Pain points like installing and monitoring open source applications persist, which creates opportunity for MSPs.
78 percent of companies rely heavily on open source.
That statistic reflects, in part, the fact that open source platforms now exist for virtually every task you can think of —from hosting a Web server (with Apache HTTP or NGINX) to building virtual machines (with KVM) to word processing (with LibreOffice, among other office suites).
It’s also a testament to the fact that open source software has become easier to use in many ways. Gone are the days when performing basic setup tasks on an open source operating system required editing display configuration files by hand or compiling custom wireless drivers. Now, most open source applications “just work.”
Yet for all that open source software has evolved over the past decade, it still has its weak points. They center on the following areas.
Installing Operating Systems
By and large, it’s much easier to install an open source operating system today than it was ten years ago. Most Linux distributions now offer intuitive, user-friendly graphical interfaces that walk users through the installation process.
However, users might still come up against questions that they are not prepared to answer unless they are well versed in Linux operating systems. They may need to understand things like disk partitioning or where to install a bootloader.
In many cases, the installation tools will attempt to auto-configure these things for users. But that process does not always work, especially if there are complex variables at play, such as networked file systems that need to be mounted on the operating system you’re installing.
For these reasons, it’s still not a safe bet that the average user can install an open source operating system without some help from an expert—like you, the MSP.
Installing open source applications can be challenging, especially if you’re working with a Linux-based operating system. (Installing open source applications on Windows usually follows the same process as installing any other kind of application.)
The type of installation package that you need may vary depending on the Linux distribution you’re working with, the type of processor and sometimes other factors. The application you want to install may have dependencies that must be installed separately. In the most complicated scenarios, applications need to be compiled manually because no installation package is available.
These are not tasks that most users have the time or expertise to handle. And because many open source applications don’t come with vendor support, users have no support number to call when they run into trouble. If they need help, they’ll probably be happy to pay you—the MSP, VAR or IT consultant—to support them.
Software updates on open source operating systems can be tricky.
For most applications on most Linux distributions, updates are installed automatically by default. Users need not worry much about them.
However, if a system is running applications that were not installed via a package management system, automatic updates usually don’t work for them.
Even if automatic updates are available, they may not always be installed as quickly as users need. For example, a company may want to install critical security patches as soon as they become available, but if the automatic software update tool on their Linux server runs only once every twenty-four hours, they’ll have to wait.
This is another area where the expertise and services of MSPs can benefit organizations that use open source software.
The main limitation of these tools is that their functionality stops mainly with sending alerts. They don’t respond to problems, or even ensure that the right alerts reach the right people.
MSPs can help to provide the extra services that organizations need to monitor their infrastructure effectively and resolve problems quickly.
In general, open source software is just as secure as any other type of software.
In fact, if you believe in the maxim that many eyeballs make bugs shallow, then you might conclude that open source is more secure than closed-source software because anyone can find and fix security problems in the source code of open source applications.
Still, no platform is immune from security vulnerabilities. Many small and medium businesses lack the staff or expertise to mitigate and respond to security issues in open source software. This is particularly true because, unlike closed-source platforms, open source software is not always supported by a vendor that will handle security issues for customers. Users of open source are often on their own to deal with security.
Managed security services can therefore comprise a compelling offering for organizations that rely heavily on open source.
Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.
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