Consultant and Enterprise Insights blogger

The results of a recent survey indicating concern among users about interoperability between open source software and proprietary applications should surprise no one, says the founder of a major Linux firm.

The Open Solutions Alliance announced Thursday it has surveyed a total of 46 companies, including its 19 members. More than half (56 per cent) said their customers were “concerned” about interoperability between open source applications while 79 per cent said their customers were concerned about interoperability between open source and proprietary software.

At press time, Open Solutions Alliance had not responded to a request for comment for this article.

But Bob Young, CEO of online publisher Lulu Inc. who founded Red Hat Inc. in 1993, said interoperability has been a concern “since the dawn” of computing.

“I would hope that customers would always be concerned about interoperability,” Young said Thursday. “It’s one of the biggest single challenges anyone who implements computing systems had to face since it used to be IBM versus Univac.”

Open Solutions Alliance, whose members include Ingre, Jaspersoft, Mambo Foundation and Unisys, also reported 78 per cent of respondents to its survey said the lower cost of open source software is one factor driving adoption.

A major market research firm has found similar feedback from respondents to its surveys.

Framingham, Mass.-based IDC released a study earlier this year, Open Source Services User Survey 2008: Customer Perceptions and Needs, which cited cost as the No. 1 reason companies buy open source software.

And the author of a previous IDC study said it’s usually the independent software vendors, rather than the end-users, who are concerned about interoperability.

“End users of IT really hadn’t got to point where they were deploying open source software in a complex environment, where they needed to have it interoperate with their own existing proprietary software that they’ve purchased,” said Matt Lawton, IDC’s program director for software business strategies.

Lawton added his survey divided respondents into three different categories: end users, ISVs and “other IT solution providers.” IDC asked respondents to choose from a list of items and indicate which were inhibitors or drivers to adoption. The factors included initial cost, total cost of ownership, product functionality, interoperability with other open source software and interoperability with proprietary software.

“The top two drivers (for end users) were the initial cost of the software and also their perceived total cost of ownership,” Lawton said. “From their perspective, interoperability with open source software was seventh on the list out of 12 items.”

But the licensing cost is not what’s really driving the open source market, said Russell McOrmond, consultant who blogs on Enterprise Insights at IT World Canada.

It is really about Free as in Free Market, not Free as in Free BeerRussell McOrmond>Text

“It isn’t really licensing costs that give open source the money advantage, but the reduction of vendor dependency that allows customer to shop around for the best price/performance,” McOrmond wrote Thursday in an e-mail to ComputerWorld Canada. “Licensing costs are often comparatively only a small portion of an IT budget, and it is ongoing support and other costs that matter the most. It is really about Free as in Free Market, not Free as in Free Beer.”

Young agreed.

“The fact that something is just cheaper isn’t the only thing customer is looking for,” he said. “The customer will frequently pay a lot more money if he believes that he is buying a lot more value, whether it’s service, whether it’s interoperability, whether it’s reliability. Customers will pay a big premium if you can show them you can have a better solution.”

Young added customers will also base their buying decisions on vendors’ reputations for interoperability.

But McOrmond suggested integration might be over-rated.

“Compatibility with proprietary systems is one of those things that are seen as really important when executives are still in the ‘money grows on trees’ mindset,” McOrmond wrote. “Once then get past that they realize that their legacy proprietary systems may be costing them far more than they are worth. “

McOrmond warned in cases where vendors make their applications compatible with open source software, customers should not count on the vendors to continue allowing this interoperability.

“Hybrid proprietary and open computing should be thought of as an important step in a migration, and not a longer-term strategy,” McOrmond wrote.

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