No one is quite sure how to define fire, but everyone knows what is it. Open source software is the same. Like fire, we know what open source does, we know what open source looks like, and we know it when we see it, but no one agrees on a definition. About the one thing that has general agreement is that open source software is distributed with the source code freely available for alteration and customization... thus the word "open."

While it's hard to say what open source is, it's easy to say what it's not. It's not proprietary, it's not protected, it's not expensive (often free), and it's not usually supported by a single entity. Open source are those programs that are written by volunteers and made available for all to use, to modify, and to improve.

Why is any of this important to your business? Simple. Some of it is the best software around, free or not free, cheap or expensive. If you are reading this on the Web right now, there is a 50% chance that the server hosting it is running Apache--one of the best-known open source programs in the world. And there is also a good chance that its running on a computer that uses the open source Linux operating system and which stores this web site's data in an open source database called MySQL... a big rival to Microsoft SQL.

Where does it come from? Throughout the world there are hundreds of thousands of programmers who join open source projects and volunteer their expertise to create a product. And new projects are started all the time, most often by a small group of programmers who are looking for a particular software solution and can't find it. (See for literally thousands of such projects.) Many of these projects morph into online communities of hundreds of programmers and tens of thousands of users.

Those who are knowledgeable about software and programming are always asked if open source is "as good as" commercial products. It's like asking if one breed of dog is better than another! The general consensus is that a well-written and well-supported open source program is as good if not better than a non-open source program. But not all open source programs are well written, nor well supported. Like the commercial world, there are good products, great products, and, of course, terrible products.

Many of the more popular open source programs run on both Linux and Windows, and a few also have versions for Mac OS-X.

The big issue for an enterprise to consider when thinking about going with an open source program is how it will be supported. Unlike a proprietary program you buy from a vendor, most open source is free and downloaded over the Internet. So who do you call when you have a question or a problem? You don't call anyone... because there is no one to call. What you do is use one of the many Q&A Web boards that are available for the more popular programs. Or you use Usenet (a.k.a. Google Groups). Finally there are mailing lists devoted to particular programs. You ask a question on the Internet, and most often it is answered by someone who also uses the program. There are many companies who believe that community support via the net is better, faster and more accurate than support given for many proprietary systems. And you can't beat the price.

So what is out there for your business in the open source world? First of all, most open source programs are utilitarian in nature, such as databases, security tools, programming languages, networking utilities, and file sharing programs. That said, there are more and more business and financial packages starting to appear in open source.

There is a well-known acronym in the world of open source: LAMP. Many companies use LAMP as their infrastructure. It stands for Linux (an operating system, rival to Windows), Apache (Web server), MySQL (database), PHP (a scripting language for writing programs). Instead of running desktop applications, many companies are centralizing their applications using server-based programs, which use all of the ingredients of open source LAMP.

What's the upside? Price and performance. The overwhelming number of open source applications are free. And the most popular have about the same basic features as commercial systems. The key word is "basic." There are many terrific open source word processors and spreadsheets that rival Microsoft Office. But there is the possibility that you will need some obscure function that is found in Office but not built into any of the open source rivals.

As for the downside, if you won't sleep at night unless there is a voice waiting at the other end of the phone (even if it is somewhere in India) willing and able (an often rare combination these days!) to help you, then open source is probably not for you.

While open source used to be an option only for "geek heavy" companies with large technical staffs, those days are gone. Most open source programs can be installed by anyone who has ever installed programs for Windows.... point and click. And when a question pops up, the community website or Usenet group usually has the answer. If not, one is often forthcoming in minutes after posting.

There is a huge amount of very good, high performance, feature rich software out there in the open source world free for anyone to use. Before you spend hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars on a "name brand" system, you owe it to your company's bottom line to check out what is available in open source and see if it will work for your operation.

Alan Canton is the president of Adams-Blake Company, Inc. of Fair Oaks, CA. Adams-Blake Company provides the JAYA123 web-based "back-office" application for small and mid-size businesses. The company has standardized on Apache, MySQL, PHP, and runs Slackware 9.1 Linux on all of its desktops. For office automation, they use both Open Office as well as Microsoft Office running under Crossover Office by CodeWeavers.