Live Free and Die
Whats 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, lets just say people cant resist something thats free.
When it comes to the allure of freebies, nothing seems to compare with software. I dont 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 Ive 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 were asked to cut corners, the logical place to start is
expensive system management software.
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 isnt 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 youre 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 youre the only one who understands the hacks you
implemented to make the freebie software perform its magic, and the
magic stops while youre on vacation, suddenly that free
software becomes very expensive.
So heres Rule 1: Weigh the
risks before considering the adoption of free system management
The adage is true: you dont
get something for nothing. We system managers gripe a lot about our
time not being valued. Were usually exempt employees no
overtime so its easy for others to forget that our time
counts for something. Keep that in mind when implementing
free software. If youre spending too many hours
customizing the free software, then its not really free, is it?
And if the implementation of free software results in any impact to
your operation, then it certainly isnt free.
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, its 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 dont want to be the tail that wags the dog, informing
management that the next upgrade breaks your free
Depending on the terminology, some
seemingly free software isnt 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.
Okay, true confession time. I know
Im 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 its 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.
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 youre 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).
The e3000 aint Linux,
thats 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.
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