Open Source in Web Development: What Is It?

Explaining Open Source

Know it before you choose software products.

Open source is a bit like an open book.

You might have heard the phrase open source when looking at different products and titles to build websites. What does that really mean though?

What Makes Up a Website or Program?

The heart of any program or application is the source code, which can be written in many languages and ways. You might have heard of C, or PHP, or Javascript before — these all can create the source code for a website that makes it run.

If the source code for the website or component is freely distributed and its licensing allows you to do whatever you like with it for your own use, that piece of source code is known as open source. Generally these products are easily findable to download, and since legally you can run in any direction with them, the sky is the limit as to what you might build.

If It’s Not Open Source, What Is It?

The opposites of open source include closed source or products whose source code is protected, guarded, or secret. Many times if you purchase a piece of software, it will be delivered in a way that you could not modify it even if you wanted to. These programs and apps might be the finished executable file, or their code may have been intentionally scrambled to stop you from reading and changing it. The licensing agreement on purchased products is almost never open source either — you are prohibited from changing the website or program, and/or reselling that product.

Who Makes these Open Source Websites and Programs?

Authorship on open source software often belongs to entire communities, non-profit foundations, corporations, universities, web development shops, and individual developers/programmers. The hard work will often pay in the form of name recognition, prestige, exposure in the market, a position of expertise in a niche, and lucrative consulting work (may include paid tech support services).

Popular Open Source Titles You May Have Heard of:

Who Uses Open Source Web Development?

Just about any kind of venture you can think of is online and running right now on open source products. There are just so many available! As web developers we need to maximize our use of time, and so if there is a solution already out there for a problem our client is having, it’s very attractive. On the flip side, plenty of projects really do require a custom solution. And there are industries where having your source code visible is really too large of a security risk, so a custom web solution is the better choice.

Security is the elephant in the room perhaps when it comes to choosing an open source component. Assuming that you trust the authors of the product, your website’s code (or at least a portion of it) is now out there for anyone to see and exploit if they can find a way. The most popular products like WordPress and Drupal have also become the biggest targets for hackers, who could theoretically hit millions of sites at once with the same attack. When these sites use plugins or modules that become vulnerable, you can have something of an online epidemic – sites becoming infected. This is why it’s very important to run your updates.

The Bottom Line

The real high note to hit about Open Source isn’t the $0 price tag, but the community around it. Being open source doesn’t mean one website is better than another – what it really means is that there are more eyes on the court. On the best open source products the bugs get fixed, the features get richer over time, and you have full control over your own website development process if you need it.

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