Why invest in open source management apps now?

Open source management technology has advanced to handle enterprise environments

Vendors are addressing scalability, security and support concerns that have deterred some IT teams from adopting open source management applications, Forrester Research says.

Cost isn’t the only reason IT managers should consider open source IT management applications, industry watchers say, as developers and communities continue to crank out enterprise-scale features, security and support for the free tools.

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Software maturity, support packages and customization capabilities are driving more enterprise and SMB IT organizations to consider open source as a viable alternative to a commercial network management platform, according to Forrester Research.

“With shrinking IT budgets and a continued need to control IT environments, the use of open source solutions to manage infrastructure and operations is no longer just an interesting experience but a viable alternative for enterprises of all sizes,” writes Evelyn Hubbert, senior analyst at Forrester Research in a recent report. “Typically open source solutions are more lightweight and can be a real alternative for managing your IT environment. End users in both midsize and enterprise markets are looking at these tools as a way to save operational expenses.”

Forrester polled more than 2,225 software decision makers at enterprise and SMB companies in late 2008 and learned that 55% of those surveyed are interested in, implementing, expanding or piloting open source applications. Just 2% of those polled indicated that they were planning to decrease their use of open source and 1% said they would remove the applications. Another 33% were either not interested or unaware of their company’s plans with open source software.

The analyst firm says in the report that vendors are addressing the concerns around scalability, security and support that deterred people from adopting open source applications in their environment. A separate survey of 582 custom software decision-makers showed that 85% continue to be mildly to very concerned about the security of open source software and the availability of service and support. Slightly fewer (82%) worry about the complexity of the tools and the difficulty of adoption, while 83% have issues with open source product immaturity.

But such concerns aren’t completely warranted now, Hubbert says. With vendors such as GroundWork, Hyperic (recently acquired by SpringSource) and Zenoss developing business models and commercial support packages around more sophisticated open source applications, IT buyers have more alternatives available to them.

“Many open source vendors have realized these concerns and are introducing support options to their solutions; for example, Nagios has added incident-based support where they are working with partners to provide support/implementation and are starting to offer more support themselves,” reads the report.

Communities supporting open source projects could actually be a better resource for enterprise IT looking to fix glitches in their software than commercial software support teams, the firm adds. Open source software allows access to the source code, which Forrester says enables many individuals to be working on bugs and sharing their knowledge in a community setting.

“The idea that ‘the more eyes looking for bugs reduces them’ is certainly valid,” according to Forrester.

Open source also frees an IT department from upgrade cycles at the whim of the vendor and maintenance fees that could become unwieldy during a recession. Forrester reports that clients have typically saved between 20% and 55% over a three-year period when using open source rather than commercial software. Another adoption driver clients point to is the ease of customization.

“Customers have the ability to add plug-ins for particular devices that are not common or can extend the solution for particular use cases or to integrate with other IT management products,” the report reads.

And unlike reports in the past that open source applications required too much care and feeding by IT staff to be used as anything other than a basic quick fix, industry watchers argue today that the software available free for download now could address a majority of IT management’s needs. Many open source applications such as NetDisco or IPplan perform a specific function like network discovery or IP address management, respectively.

“Many of these [network management and monitoring solutions] are enterprise-class and have been used and enhanced by network managers in global enterprises across the world,” Hubbert says. “These solutions have core functionalities, are less expensive than most of their commercial counterparts, and do not need any professional services to be implemented.”

Considering IT might not really need all the capabilities available in commercial software, open source could be the smarter choice. For instance, most network and systems management platforms include more far-ranging capabilities than most IT departments can put to good use – which is also why those software packages are very difficult to install and tend to be cost-prohibitive.

Still IT organization must consider more than technology when weighing the options between open source and commercial management applications.

“Not all organizations have the open source culture, behavior and skills levels necessary for the adoption of open source. Understanding where your staff lies can make the difference between a success and a nightmare,” the report reads.

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