Open source skills: What companies need to know

Open source in the enterprise is something that an IT manager is having to contend with more and more these days, adding yet another necessary skill to the ever-growing stack of must-have competencies. ComputerWorld Canada delves into what every IT pro needs to keep tabs on the open source in their enterprise.

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“A major trend is the advance across the board of using open-source software for increasingly mission-critical workloads,” said Mark Driver, a research vice-president with Gartner Research. “Even the more conservative companies are leveraging it for the first time, and they’re demanding these skills in-house, or contracting them out. This is the trend we see happening, and it’s a strong driver for more self-reliant IT staff, as only relying on open-source with a strong support system limits you.”

This is being reflected in universities across the land. Zack Urlocker, vice-president of products in the database group of Sun Microsystems (which bought MySQL recently) said, “Over the last few years, people have been becoming fairly fluent in open-source, especially the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) stack. They’re gravitating toward that, especially because they’re used to build Web apps.”

Utilizing these technologies might also prove a decent attraction and retention strategy, said Urlocker. “Encouraging the use of open-source offers a competitive edge, and can attract and retain talent. It’s a hot skill right now. (If you offer an open-source environment) they can develop their own skillset, and it’s better that they do this with you rather than leaving to go join some start-up that is,” he said.

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These skills might not be needed for certain open-source packages, according Driver, who said that the real skill comes in with the more out-there open-source offerings. “The open-source products without a deep support channel have effectively creates a general trend toward more self-reliance. In the extreme case, you have an IT manager responsible for supporting yourself and becoming a system integrator,” he said.

There can be benefits to the set-up, he said. “The community is wider and deeper than around a product from Microsoft or IBM. It’s amazing to see the results you get if you just go to Google,” said Driver.

But, he said, the lack of a service-level agreement means that some questions can go unanswered. Said Driver: “You’ll usually get 98 per cent of your answers immediately, but then it seems that the two per cent of answers are those that are bringing your site down.”

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Urlocker said that he has seen more and more companies sending their staff out to get schooled in open-source.

“It means that you have to train and maintain in-house a higher level of expertise, and a program manager who can pay attention to the integrations of products. Now it can be five or six open-source software versus one major supplier working together,” said Driver.

“A lot of companies look at it as free, so do they really need to track compliance?” said Laura Hansen, an analyst with the Info-Tech Research Group. “But the best practices are still to keep it neat and tidy and not taxing your servers by loading it up with too much open-source software.”

“The challenge sometimes is in managing CIOs and IT directors who might not be aware of how much open-source there is in the organization. They meet with their senior level people and ask what their open-source strategy is, and they say, ‘Oh, we don’t use it much.’ But the guys that do the actual work have actually been downloading a lot of it,” said Urlocker.

“Open source is everywhere, and the worst thing about it is that a lot of that open-source is going unmitigated and unaudited,” said Driver.

He and Urlocker agree that it is paramount to develop a formal set of practices. “You need to figure out what your open-source strategy is,” Driver said. “Start by doing an audit: where is the software being used, where is it successful? You need to position it throughout, not just dump it in the stacks and ignore it.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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