The future of open source

Open source technology already plays a greater role in the enterprise than most would guess. Every enterprise today has open source in one form or another in its IT environment, often a little-known fact even to executive leadership. But the open source industry believes the presence of open source will not only continue to gain a larger portion of the IT environment, but it will eventually become a force to be recognized with.

While open source used to be dominated by a ripple effect, driven by developers from the bottom up, the past several years has seen a shift to chief information officers, heads of procurement and heads of infrastructure, said Roger Burkhardt, CEO of Redwood City, Calif.-based open source database vendor Ingres Corp.

“It’s not that the proprietary stuff doesn’t work,” said Burkhardt. “It’s that the business experience is absolutely miserable.”
Burkhardt is referring to headaches often associated with proprietary software like licensing costs and conditions, which in the current economic downturn only get accentuated. “With the current model, even if your company has downsized by 15 per cent, when the traditional software vendor comes around, they are not offering you any reduction in their annual fee,” he said.
“It’s not that the proprietary stuff doesn’t work,” said Roger Burkhardt. “It’s that the business experience is absolutely miserable.”

The economic woes are nudging heads of procurement to make a change in how they buy software, said Burkhardt because “doing nothing is not an option. CIOs cannot just do nothing.”

Burkhardt describes a vision called The New Economics of IT, or the idea that the value that a software provides should be aligned with what the customer actually wants out of that software. Customers should be allowed to choose what to do with the software, and whether they want to pay for things like support, explained Burkhardt.

In fact, he believes that open source going mainstream will be largely driven by the need for the customer to regain standing in the procurement relationship. “The open source model will become the dominant model for procuring software,” Burkhardt said. “That won’t happen overnight, but it is the model that puts the customer back in charge.”

For that reason, software models like software-as-a-service are attractive because of the “pay for the value you get” approach, and for the ability to switch between different vendors thereby making it a competitive environment, said Burkhardt.

Hooked on licences

But that’s not to say that proprietary software vendors won’t start to shift their software model, he noted, it’s just that it will take longer given they are hooked on upfront licence revenues.

According to Jeffrey Hammond, principal analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., while the first wave of open source software adoption was driven by a belief in community, a second coming wave will be led by mainstream organizations pushed to cut costs.

Hammond thinks the change will “force (the software industry) to become more responsive to customers for the duration of the use of their products.” Large vendors typically sell their software for an upfront price plus up to 30 per cent in support and maintenance fees, where it is often engraved into the contract that the customer must stay current on support in return for the right to upgrade, he said.

“To some extent they don’t even have to work that hard,” said Hammond. “They extract value from the customer year after year with very little regard for what they have to do.”

The open source software approach, on the other hand, upsets that traditional model. Customers pay for support but it’s decoupled from the right to upgrade, and they don’t pay for the software upfront, said Hammond.

In fact, that second wave of adoption by enterprises has already started. Hammond supported this by pointing to the popularity of Apache Tomcat and JBoss in the area of application servers, and the fact that MySQL and Oracle deployments are tied in the database domain.

Basically, when organizations don’t get the software support they should, said Hammond, they will naturally steer towards the least expensive option out there. Using an automobile metaphor, he said while a Cadillac may be better in some respects to get from one point to another, “a Honda will do that perfectly fine. I don’t need a Cadillac. I don’t need to pay twice the cost.”

Peter Vescuso, executive vice-president of marketing and business development for Waltham, Mass.-based Black Duck Software Inc., envisions what he calls a multi-source world where “open source, proprietary code, outsourced code, all kinds of code” will abound. The company facilitates, by making available tools and repositories, the integration and use of open source components in application development.

In fact, Black Duck recently announced a collaboration with Microsoft Corp. to automate the addition of open source projects from Microsoft’s open source project hosting Web site CodePlex into Black Duck’s code database KnowledgeBase and code search engine

“They’ve really come around,” said Vescuso, referring to the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant. He thinks Microsoft enabling a developer environment where there is a choice of code is the right focus moving forward given that “hype” surrounding open source is fading and now developers merely care for “the right code for the right job.”

Actually, the perception of open source is “in rapid flux” among IT managers, said Vescuso, where there has “been a lot of FUD around open source.” Issues of security and support typically get listed quite high, but in actuality those are rapidly diminishing concerns as IT managers build more experience using open source, he noted. Specifically, enterprise IT shops are starting to realize the ability to “self-support” using the code base, and the support of the community and of commercial vendors, said Vescuso.

Owning the channel

While IT managers, by virtue of their jobs, are closer to the code and are aware of the value, it’s often a matter of convincing upper management that such concerns “are not nearly as significant, or even are greatly diminished.”

But like Burkhardt, Vescuso believes the economic downturn is forcing executives to see what open source today offers. “There’s nothing like a good recession to force change and that’s a lot of what is going on these days,” said Vescuso.

Software is following the same route as other forms of knowledge production where tools of production are easy to obtain and use in such a way that now “everybody’s a software producer,” said Curt Finch, CEO of Austin, Tex.-based Journyx Inc.

That reality is tough on proprietary software vendors who would prefer to “own that channel,” said Finch. But while the proliferation of open source software will mean developers will have a choice, he said the resultant fragmentation will bring about challenges.

The degree of fragmentation that exists even today is causing confusion because developers don’t know what is supported and what is reliable, said Finch. Take Linux with its many versions, he said, where some are better supported by their communities than others.

The fragmentation won’t decline. If anything, said Finch, it will continue to the point that intermediaries like a trusted advisor must step in to help the developer or IT manager. That already exists in communities like that allow “some of best things to bubble up to the top through democratic choice,” said Finch.

But there is open source software that is obviously working in the enterprise, and needs no intermediary, like Apache for Web servers and Linux for operating systems, said Finch. Basically, open source exists quite successfully throughout the infrastructure stack, but less so the higher up the stack you go, he said. Specific-purpose versus general-purpose applications are less likely to be successful and well-supported open source software, said Finch, because “it comes down to how many users there are, and it’s taken longer for the applications to get solid than the lower level infrastructure stuff.”

Finch believes there will eventually be a tipping point where, amid all this fragmentation, there will emerge a need to focus in order to render business value from open source.

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