Ten years ago, Finnish hacker Linus Torvalds posted the following message to a discussion group: "I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones."

The project he was referring to eventually grew into Linux, the open source operating system. Today, far from being a hobby, Linux has grown into a mainstream operating system. Indeed, following the U.S. Department of Justice's decision to discontinue attempts to have Microsoft broken up, many now view Linux as the only long-term challenge to the all-encompassing power of Microsoft.

Certainly the impressive list of industry heavyweights now supporting Linux—including Sun, Oracle, and IBM—has given credence to this view. IBM alone has pledged to spend $1 billion this year pushing open source, particularly Linux.

But Linux (or more accurately GNU/Linux) is just the tip of the iceberg. Today there is a wide range of open source software available, and new projects are being started all the time.

What, though, do we mean when we talk about open source software?

What Is Open Source?

The term open source refers to software in which the source code is freely available for others to view, amend, and adapt. Typically it's created and maintained by a team of developers that crosses institutional and national boundaries. As such, open source software can't be appropriated by one large proprietary vendor. Additionally, open source is generally more stable than proprietary software. After all, when any programmer can read, redistribute, and modify source code, there are more eyes to spot bugs and provide fixes.

As the Open Source Initiative claims, "This rapid evolutionary process produces better software than the traditional closed model, in which only a very few programmers can see the source and everybody else must blindly use an opaque block of bits."

Open source software is also more secure and less vulnerable to the many virusesnow circulating on the Internet. However, its most compelling feature is that, although there may be some distribution and setup costs, open source software is essentially free.

The consequent savings, argues Mike Banahan, co-founder of the U.K.-based training company GBdirect, are significant. Having migrated his entire company from Microsoft products to open source, Banahan claims to have reduced the annual cost of ownership of GBdirect's desktop PCs to about $295-$440 U.S. per machine. "Compare that," he says, "with the $8,000 a year that Gartner estimates it costs for each PC running Microsoft software."

But does open source have any specific relevance to librarians and information professionals?

A Natural Fit

Absolutely, says Jeremy Frumkin, metadata librarian at the University of Arizona Library. "Libraries and open source software are a natural fit. Both promote learning and understanding through the dissemination of information."

Moreover, adds Frumkin, libraries share many of the values espoused by open sourcedevelopers, not least their sense of communal purpose. "It is this sense of communitythat allows libraries to work together, either in consortia or in other ways, to help each other out—and to limit replication of work. OCLC's WorldCat (and the concept of copy cataloging) is a prime example of this."

Indeed, one of the Association of Research Libraries' "Keystone Principles" states, "Libraries will create interoperability in the systems they develop and create open source software for the access, dissemination, and management of information".

Nor is Frumkin's enthusiasm for open source merely a romantic notion of how the world might be. He, along with a growing number of information professionals and librarians, actively uses open source tools. Many of the library servers at the University of Arizona, for instance, use Linux and the Apache Web server software. "We also use MySQL, the open source relational database system, for many of our projects," says Frumkin.

Ben Ostrowsky, automation services technologist at the Tampa Bay Library Consortium, is another open source enthusiast. "We are a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization that provides services—including Web hosting and e-mail facilities—to libraries," he says. "And we do all of this with free [a variant of open source] and open source software, including GNU/Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP."

Nothing But Excellent
Another convert is Cindy Murdock, network administrator at Meadville Public Library/Crawford County Federated Library System (CCFLS) in Pennsylvania. "Over the past 2 years or so we have been integrating a lot of open source into our infrastructure," she says. "My experiences with it have been nothing but excellent."

Today the CCFLS servers run on a combination of Linux and OpenBSD. Murdock also uses SIPS, the open source blogging program (an integrated Weblog and link-indexing system), to allow librarians to post library news and events. In addition, she uses Gimp and Bluefish software to create graphics and Web content.

But utilizing generic open source solutions like Linux, Apache, and MySQL is the first step. Libraries are also using open source software to develop dedicated information and library services.

CCFLS, for instance, has utilized open source tools to develop a Web-based catalog with an interlibrary loan (ILL) feature that lets librarians from nine libraries in the county request materials from each other. "While the catalog is static—being separate from our libraries' circulation systems—we update it every few months," says Murdock. "So it is still more current than the online ILL facilities provided by the state."

Library-Specific Projects
There are also a growing number of cross-institutional library-specific projects in development. Prospero, for instance, is a Web-based document delivery solution designed to complement the Ariel software system; MARC.pm is a Perl-based module for reading, manipulating, outputting, and converting bibliographic records in the MARC format; and [email protected] is a portal solution that enables libraries to develop user-driven customizable interfaces to Internet resources. And in New Zealand the Horowhenua Library Trust and Katipo Communications have created Koha, the world's first open source public library system. Including a full catalog, OPAC, circulation, and acquisitions system, Koha is already implemented in the Horowhenua District Library and a number of school libraries in Canada. Likewise, OpenBook is an open source integrated library system (ILS) targeted at small-to-medium-sized public and school libraries. Based on the Koha system, OpenBook includes a multi-language OPAC interface.

A Number of Obstacles

It would be wrong to imply that open source is set to replace proprietary vendors. Today the issue is more whether open source can provide a viable alternative.

Certainly there remain a number of obstacles to its wider adoption, not least the generally higher level of technical knowledge required to install and maintain open source software. True, distributors like Red Hat have begun to offer user-friendly shrink-wrapped installations of Linux. But users who migrate to open source applications still face a steep learning curve.

For this reason, the implementation of open source solutions today tends to be restricted to infrastructure and other "invisible" applications such as servers, where techies are responsible for their installation and management. Currently, for instance, around 60 percent of the world's Web sites run on Apache.

Capturing the Desktop

The ultimate test of open source will doubtless lie in its ability to become more user-friendly and to capture the desktop. But this will be an uphill struggle. Today Microsoft has a 95-percent monopoly of the PC operating system market, a 96-percent share of the office applications suite business, and an 88-percent share of the browser market.

On the positive side, there are new GUI-like desktop environments available for Linux PCs, including KDE and GNOME. And Microsoft's competitors are working hard to provide open source alternatives to mainstream applications, such as StarOffice, Sun's open source competitor to Microsoft Office. There are also Linux versions of both the Netscape browser and WordPerfect. Currently,though, these tend still to lack the sophistication and professional look and feel of Microsoft products.

That said, there are signs that the continuing arrogance of Microsoft—along with its voracious appetite for ever-greater profits—is increasingly driving users into the arms of the open source "movement."

When earlier this year Microsoft announced that it intended to change its business model from selling one-off copies of its software to selling it on a subscription basis, thousands of Dutch users reacted by immediately logging on to the Internet and ordering copies of StarOffice.

More significantly, many large corporations are now migrating to open source. Earlier this year, the European arm of automobile giant Ford decided to ditch Microsoft as its desktop operating systems provider and move to open source. Likewise in June, the U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency announced that it plans to standardize with StarOffice.

The growing interest in open source among the information and library community is clearly part of this more general disillusionment with proprietary solutions.

"I think Microsoft's recent conduct has been completely unethical and downright offensive," says Murdock. "Libraries would do well to embrace open source."

New Opportunities, Challenges

Open source, then, offers new opportunities. But it also raises a number of challenges for the information and library community, and for its suppliers.

Under the greatest threat currently wouldappear to be those companies—such as library automation vendors—that provide software solutions to libraries. For instance, consider KLAS, Keystone Systems' proprietary library automation product. Today it costs between $20,000-$200,000 to implement a KLAS system. By contrast, says Rachel Hamilton-Williams, managing director of Katipo Communications, the cost of implementing a Koha system is in the region of $3,000-$10,000. "I think open source may offer a threat to commercial vendors," she said.

But KLAS product manager Mitake Burts disagrees. "We don't see products such as Koha or OpenBook as direct competition," he says. "KLAS is marketed to libraries that provide high levels of patron service and have automation needs to support those services.Generic automation systems do not meet our customers' needs, and they do not have the staff resources to develop or continue to develop customized software that will meet their needs."

"Customization is possible with both proprietary and open source solutions," responds Hamilton-Williams. "The difference is that with open source you can choose whether to pay for someone to do it, or do it yourself."

Taking Responsibility

This perhaps goes to the heart of the debate for libraries. While open source is an exciting new development, and opens up the possibility of breaking the shackles of proprietary lock-ins, it raises a question: "To what extent are librarians and information professionals prepared to take charge of the technology themselves?"

As Hamilton-Williams concedes: "Opensource isn't an easy option for libraries. It requires them to take more personal responsibility for their system."

Her point is reinforced by Robin Murray, president of library automation company Fretwell-Downing. "Librarians using off-the-shelf open source products soon discover that it is not as functionally rich as they had hoped. In this case, they have to carry the burden of development themselves, or to turn to a commercial vendor to mold the product to their needs."

"You might well need a higher level of technical understanding," agrees Andy Powell, assistant director of the U.K. Office for Library and Information Networking, "but with good open source solutions help is often just an e-mail message away."