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June 2001

Live Free and Die

By Scott Hirsh

What’s the most magic word in the English language? Some would say “sex,” but my choice is “free.” (Put them together and you really have something.) Free is magic because our human nature loves the idea of something for nothing. I have read various psychological explanations for why this is so. But to avoid overanalyzing, let’s just say people can’t resist something that’s free.

When it comes to the allure of freebies, nothing seems to compare with software. I don’t know why this is so, but as far back as I can remember in my IT career, contributed software, shareware, freeware… whatever it was called at the time was hard to resist. Commercial software, especially commercial system management software, somehow always struck me as a rip off. I remember in the days of the Series 44 I was shopping around for a job scheduler. As I recall, there were only one or two products on the market for the HP 3000, and the first one I investigated cost more than the Series 44 itself! I was later approached with an offer to beta test a new package — for free, cha-ching! — and ever since I’ve been ruined.

The freebie bias for us back-of-the-building folks has been exacerbated by the Internet, where god intended everything to be free. And when times get tough, and we’re asked to cut corners, the logical place to start is expensive system management software.
But just as the applications side of the house has its “buy vs. build” debate, the “too good to be true” aspect of free software is real for us system managers as well. The question of the day, as we again head into uncertain economic times, is what makes the adoption of free software a worst practice?

Critical vs. non-critical

Free software is great for non-critical functions — printing screen memory, bouncing idle users, reading system logs, etc. — but I personally would think twice before addressing a critical function with free software. Why? Because — big surprise here! — free software isn’t really free. Somebody must support it, either directly (you maintain scripts or source code) or indirectly (you put out a plea for help to the world). And if that support is not forthcoming — you’re busy or on vacation, the world is busy or on vacation – you are in a world of hurt.

Generally speaking, a major blind spot for us techies is discounting the degree of dependence our organizations have on us, especially when we start hacking public domain or other free software. (This situation is typically compounded by our lack of time to document what we have done.) So when you’re the only one who understands the hacks you implemented to make the freebie software perform its magic, and the magic stops while you’re on vacation, suddenly that free software becomes very expensive.
I’m not saying that organizations that operate on a shoestring can’t make this work, but for the vast majority of large enterprises, freebie enterprise management software does indeed have associated costs. Furthermore, if for any reason there is an upward compatibility issue, you may be forced at gunpoint to quickly buy and implement a commercial version of your free solution.

So here’s Rule 1: Weigh the risks before considering the adoption of free system management software.

No free lunch

The adage is true: you don’t get something for nothing. We system managers gripe a lot about our time not being valued. We’re usually exempt employees — no overtime — so it’s easy for others to forget that our time counts for something. Keep that in mind when implementing “free” software. If you’re spending too many hours customizing the free software, then it’s not really free, is it? And if the implementation of free software results in any impact to your operation, then it certainly isn’t free.

It may not work forever

Free software may be great as long as you stay on your current hardware and operating system. But you may not be so lucky after an upgrade. Heck, it’s hard enough to keep commercially supported software running from OS revision to revision. You may not be so lucky with your own homegrown solution. You don’t want to be the tail that wags the dog, informing management that the next upgrade breaks your free solution.

It may not really be “free”

Depending on the terminology, some seemingly free software isn’t really free; some kind of compensation may be expected. Or there may be some other kind of contractual obligation associated with the software that will come back to haunt you if you plan to roll out the software extensively. Check the README and other similarly named files for any licensing gotchas associated with your utopian solution.

It may be dangerous

Okay, true confession time. I know I’m the only one who has ever done this, but a long time ago I would load the latest Contributed Software Library and try out the contributions that sounded interesting. Forget the disclaimers about not being responsible for anything bad that might happen as a result of using the software. I just had to play with my new toys. So I fired up one of the programs — dialed in from home, no less — and as soon as I hit the enter key… my keyboard froze. Uh-oh. Then I tried dialing in again. Nothing. So I trudged down to the office to find that I had indeed crashed my system. Never did that again (at least on a production system). But it’s a risk. Other platforms have other ugly possibilities, with viruses, Trojan horses and the like. I have heard fears expressed regarding Trojan horses, but have never seen any direct evidence on an e3000. You may still want to be prudently paranoid.

Almost free is probably better

The e3000 commercial software vendors everyone seems to like — and we all know who they are — generally cushion the blow of paying for software by supplying very decent bonus utilities. Therefore, by purchasing the reasonably priced software every shop should have, you may get in the bargain a bunch of free utilities that are not only high quality, but supported as well. If you’re not sure if your vendor includes bonus supported software, ask them. I can think of at least six who do, and their software is worth buying as well.

Another approach is to seek out no- or low-cost software from names you can trust. For example, Allegro Consultants (www.allegro.com) has been doing so many good things for the e3000 community for so long that anything they produce is sure to be worthwhile. Working with trusted sources is a great way to mitigate risk (duh).

One last word

The e3000 ain’t Linux, that’s for sure. We know that long-term, you get what you pay for, and value is an equation with a lot of variables. Free software has a place in our shops, but the extent to which we adopt free software will depend on the financial circumstances of our organizations as well as our tolerance for risk. Not all commercial software is worth its price tag and not all free software is half-baked or risky. The key is to add up all the costs (including your time) and all the associated risks. You just may discover that the tantalizingly free software costs too much.

Scott Hirsh (scott@acellc.com) former chairman of the SYSMAN Special Interest Group, is an HP Certified HP 3000 System Manager and founder of Automated Computing Environments (www.acellc.com, 925.962.0346), HP-certified OpenView Consultants who consult on OpenView, Maestro, Sys*Admiral and other general HP e3000 and HP 9000 automation and administration practices.

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