Free Software

13 Feb 2007

People & Planet is committed to using Free Software wherever it can. This means that we can use, copy, change and share our software as we need to.

What is Free Software ?

Free Software is software released under a licence that guarantees four freedoms:

  1. The freedom to run the software for any purpose.
  2. The freedom to study and the software to see how it works.
  3. The freedom to redistribute the software.
  4. The freedom to improve the software and share your changes with other people.

Why does People & Planet Use Free Software?

Free Software, sometimes called Open Source, is enormously useful to People & Planet and other third sector or campaigning organisations for many reasons:

Cost

Free software is often available at no cost. It needn’t always be — the “Free” in Free Software is a matter of liberty rather than cost. We can provide better value for money for the organisations and people who suppport us by investing in campaigning rather than in software licences.

Security and Reliability

Many pieces of Free Software have a better security record than their proprietary counterparts. People & Planet has only experienced two viruses in the last five years. This is about 0.46% of the usual prevalence of viruses (2004 figures). Free software is developed by a large community of users and programmers, which means that bugs and security flaws tend to get spotted and fixed quickly.

Flexibility

Free Software, because we can tweak and adapt it, has helped People & Planet to build customised systems that meet our needs better than proprietary programs. This helps us support our staff and our activists. Although we tend to customise our programs ourselves, other small organisations can comission support and customisation from the huge community of developers involved in the Free Software movement.

Lower Support Costs

The community of developers, testers and users involved in Free Software help People & Planet keep down our support costs. When we come across bugs, we report them online, and we find that they are usually fixed quickly, sometimes within days. This is not our experience of support services offered by proprietary software firms. The Free Software community has developed fantastic online support mechanisms. We regularly use sites like OpenOffice.org, Linux Questions and Perlmonks as sources of support, help and guidance. A network of local Linux User Groups provide grassroots support for people who use the GNU/Linux operating system.

Avoiding Vendor Lock-in

Vendor lock-in is the process by which you become dependent on the software of one company. For example, Microsoft’s popular Outlook email program keeps its data in files that use a secret format called PST. This makes it difficult to move your emails to another program. You are locked in to using Outlook to access your email. If Microsoft decide no longer to support your version of Outlook, you are faced with upgrading, losing all your email, or running an out of date email program (which may have bugs or security flaws). None of which is appealing for an individual or an organisation. Free Software supports open standards — and allows anyone to see how a program uses these standards — so we will always be able to migrate to a different system if our current one is no longer supported.

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The Environmental Impact

Using Free Software allows us to extend the useful life of our computers. Its easy to tailor Free Software so that a computer is only doing what you need it to be doing. Thus, People & Planet can spend less money on computers, and reduce our environmental impact. People are often faced with upgrading their computers just to keep up with their software. For example, Siân Berry, of the Green Party, recently said of Windows Vista

Future archaeologists will be able to identify a “Vista Upgrade Layer” when they go through our landfill sites.

Democratic

Free Software is consistent with P&P’s commitment to openness and democracy. Sergio Amadeu da Silveira the Brazillian Minister for Information Technology puts it:

… I´d like to register that the purchase of software that preserves the values of openness and freedom is, for the Brazilian government, a subject unavoidably connected to the democratic principle. And, as it has been a long and painful path to reach our current democratic developmental stage in this country, we will not walk out of our fight.

If democracy is a value full of ideology, it will never be an insignificant value. If democracy is a dream, it´s the one dream from which this country will never wake up.

The future is free.

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Case Study - People & Planet’s Database

For an organisation like People & Planet, a database is a vital tool. It lets us stay in touch with our groups, supporters and activists; monitor our campaigns and fundraising; and provide services — like our e-supporter and e-active mailing lists.

We originally developed our database using Microsoft’s Access 97. Since Access 97, Microsoft has released four newer versions of Access (2000, 2002, 2003, 2007). Microsoft has now stopped selling Access 97 licences which means that, when we buy a new computer, we have to buy Access 2000 at the same time. This means that we must have two different versions of our database, which costs us time and money. We’ve also found Access 2000 slower than Access 97!

We have used the Free Software MySQL database for other projects and decided last year that it made sense for us to move our main database to it. MySQL is used by thousands of organisations, including NASA, the BBC, the US Census Bureau and flickr. At People & Planet we chose to move from Access to MySQL for many reasons:

  • Freedom - MySQL is available under the Free Software GNU GPL Licence. This grants us the four freedoms to use, copy, change, and share the program.
  • Interopability - We’ve been able to combine information from our database, website and intranet easily, since migrating to MySQL. For example, our campaigners can now use our website to manage information about themselves from our database. And our intranet can now provide staff with a statistical overview of information from our database. Access, with its closed format, always made it difficult for us to use our data flexibly.
  • Reliability - Access is prone to crashing in multi-user environment (we used to experience crashes weekly at least!). We have yet to experience a MySQL crash.
  • Avoiding vendor lock-in - If we were to move our database server to PostgreSQL (another popular Free Software database program) it would be considerably easier than moving away from Access. Because MySQL is Free Software, we reduce the risk that we’ll end up dependent on a single company, as we were with Microsoft.
  • Cost - MySQL is available for download at zero cost. As it is so widely used, there is a lot of freely available expertise should we encounter problems with it. Set up and adminisration time are similar to other database programs.
  • Speed - MySQL’s speed is staggering when compared with that of Access. We’ve found operations that used to take 3 minutes now take only a few seconds.

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What Free Software Does People & Planet Use?

  • Wordprocessing, Spreadsheets, Presentation - OpenOffice.org is a fantastic replacement for Microsoft Office
  • Email - Most of us use Mozilla Thunderbird. We also have a webmail system - Squirrelmail that lets us read our email remotely.
  • The GIMP(or GNU Image Manipulation Program) helps us with many day to day graphics editing tasks.
  • Web Browsing - Mozilla Firefox is lightyears ahead of its non-free counterparts
  • Database - We use the GPL licenced version of MySQL.
  • Programming Languages - Our website is powered by PHP, our intranet is written using the Ruby on Rails framework and we also use Perl for many day to day tasks. We use the subversion version control system.
  • Webserver - We use the Apache webserver, which is the most commonly used on the Internet (figures from Netcraft).
  • Our fileservers use the Samba program to allow Windows, Macintosh and Linux users to share files on our network.
  • Our email server is Postfix. We use amavisd-new,clamav and spamassassin to scan emails for spam and viruses.
  • Our servers run the Debian GNU/Linux operating system.

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What do you think?

anti-spam number must be copied
  • The Free Software Foundation is “dedicated to promoting computer users’ rights to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer programs”.
  • The GNU Project seeks to develop a complete operating system that is entirely composed of Free Software. They also maintain the GNU GPL. GNU stands for GNU’s Not Unix (as does the GNU in GNU’s Not Unix).
  • Open IT Up is the NCVO’s Free Software advocacy project, and a good source of advice for third sector organisations considering adopting Free Software.
  • You can try Free Software programs yourself quite easily. Windows users can pick up TheOpenCD, Mac or Windows users can get a free copy of Ubuntu GNU/Linux, a completely Free operating system. You can run Ubuntu off the CD to see if you like it before installing it.
  • Danny Yee’s piece on Development, Ethical Trading, and Free Software examines Free Software as appropriate technology.
  • Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution gives an introduction to many of the ideas that shape and inspire the Free and Open Source Software movement.
  • Richard Stallman is the founder of the Free Software movement, his biography is Free as In Freedom.
  • The Cathedral and the Bazaar is an attempt to analyse the culture and economics of Open Source.

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