Acadiana Open Source Group organizer Matt Turland talks about free software, why it's free, and where to get it.

Matt Turland, Acadiana Open Source, PHP, University of Louisiana, LafayetteRegularly consuming cafeteria food, coffee, and ramen noodles. Living in a small apartment on or near campus, maybe with one or several roommates. Working a regular job to pay the bills in addition to going to classes. Constantly worrying about where money will come from.

This sound familiar?

While pursuing a degree from UL in computer science between 2000 and 2006, I lived a lot like other college students. The last thing I needed was an outrageous cost for computer software, even at a discounted academic rate, burning another hole in my pocket. UL is generally good about providing for most of what you need if you're in a class or curriculum that requires using a computer, which most do at some point or another. However, there are the occasional instances where you have to pay your own way. So what's a student to do?

What you may not know is that there's probably a software package out there right now that can do what you need and it's available for free. No, seriously. Free, as in Free Beer, as in No Strings Attached. You can run the software on as many computers as you want, and give it out to anyone you want. Not only that, but if you're computer savvy and have experience writing software, you can get access to the software's source code to change it however you want.

You're probably thinking this sounds too good to be true. What you've just read describes the essence of, and spirit behind, the open source movement.

Tux, Linux Penguin, Microsoft Sucks, JuiceA few questions are probably popping into your head right now. For one, the big "why" question that everyone invariably asks: why would anyone go to the trouble of writing software and then give it away for free? There's an interesting story to answer that question.

Back in 1983, a man by the name of Richard Stallman became rather disenamored with software companies that charged high prices for software, and then placed restrictions on how it could be used once it was purchased. To raise awareness that there was an alternative to this situation, he started the Free Software Foundation to promote the idea that software, as well as its source code, should be freely available.

Later in 1991, another man named Linus Torvalds with an interest in operating systems posted a bit of source code to a hobbyist newsgroup and received a huge reaction from people wanting to contribute their own code to the project. That same year saw his first release of the kernel that would be the basis for the Linux operating system.* Today, Linux powers most of the computers hosting web sites in the world. Ubuntu, an easy-to-install, easy-to-operate Linux-based operating system, is even available as an option on computers distributed by Dell.

These events inspired groups of people to come together to help create great software that they themselves could use without restriction and in which they could feel a personal sense of ownership. This isn't limited to writing code. People have contributed to open source projects by reporting issues, authoring documentation, supporting other users, and promoting the software in their local communities. Despite all these efforts, however, there are still many places where few people are aware that open source software even exists.

So how do you get access to all this free software? Linux distributions include package managers, which are programs that provide a central place to easily search, download, install, and manage all kinds of other software. That "other" software includes everything from office suites like OpenOffice.org to internet browsers like Mozilla Firefox.

Acadiana Open Source, University of Louisiana, Tux, Linux Penguin, Tri-fleur, Triple Fleur de LisBut what if you have to work on campus systems that only have Windows? Quite a few open source programs provide versions that run on Windows. PortableApps.com hosts versions of these programs that are modified to keep their data on your flash drive and to minimize write operations in order to maximize the life of your flash drive, which is great for students that need to keep their data with them when they're on the go.

I hope this article has helped pique your interest in open source software, at least to the point that you want to further investigate it for your own personal use. If you're interested in finding out more, please considering attending a meeting of the Acadiana Open Source Group. AOSG is a user group intent on fostering a community around open source in the Acadiana area, and includes a number of UL students and faculty as well as local high school students and professionals working with open source software in the commercial sector.  Check our website for upcoming meetings and other activities.

We hope to see you there!

Matthew Turland is a UL alumnus. He has been employed in the web and software industry for over 8 years and was the first Zend Certified Engineer in Louisiana.  He currently is the Senior Consultant for BlueParabola.

To read his thoughts on more technical issues, visit his blog, i should be coding.

*The mascot of Linux is Tux the Penguin, as portrayed in the illustrations.

A comparison of some Open Source and proprietary software, with costs:

Proprietary Platform  MSRP OpenSource Equivalent  Cost   Download
Microsoft XP/Vista $399.95 Ubuntu FREE  Ubuntu.com
Microsoft Office $499.95 OpenOffice FREE OpenOffice.org
Adobe Photoshop $649.00 The Gimp FREE Gimp.org
Adobe Illustrator $599.00 Inkscape FREE Inkscape.org
Adobe Dreamweaver $399.00 KompoZer FREE KompoZer.net
Blackboard $300K/year Moodle FREE Moodle.org
Oracle $15K-$40K/year   MySQL, PostGreS FREE MySQL.com, PostGreSQL.org
Microsoft IIS $469 Linux + Apache FREE Linux.org, Apache.org
Plesk/cPanel $1199/$1499 Webmin FREE Webmin.com