Though arguably in its early stages, the trend is accelerating. Last week Oracle announced it would buy open source database vendor Sleepycat Software, and rumors continue to swirl about its interest in JBoss, one of the leading open source application server firms. Last year IBM bought open source infrastructure company Gluecode Software, and Check Point Software is finalizing its purchase of Snort-creator Sourcefire. At the same time, commercial vendors are beginning to offer versions of their proprietary products for free and are contributing proprietary code to the open source community hoping to make money on services and support.
Still, there are concerns as commercial vendors ingest the companies that were the first to make this business model work. At risk is the loss of user access to key application development personnel - a hallmark of open source projects - and the potential departure of critical project stewards.
"I believe what will really determine the success or failure of commercial firms purchasing open source vendors is the extent to which they can keep the key developers," says Barry Strasnick, CIO at CitiStreet, a benefits management company in Quincy, Mass. "One of the main reasons that CitiStreet likes to deal with vendors such as JBoss is that our senior technical staff can deal with their technical staff, instead of having to deal with useless layers in between," he says. "We don't buy software because of fancy brochures or well-dressed sales staff. We buy software to gain benefit from great programmers."
Another concern with commercial vendors acquiring open source companies is the possibility that the software could be applied to enhance proprietary products.
"The question that customers need to pay attention to is what is going to happen to the code that was open source," says Bob Igou, a research director at Gartner. "Does it remain open source? Is the acquiring company going to make sure it's even better tested and quality assured and provide services around it? Or are they worst case going to cannibalize it and integrate it into something else they're doing and in a sense the open source product goes away?"
It remains to be seen how these acquiring vendors will treat their new open source assets. Users are watching with caution.
"It's a bit too early to know whether [this trend] will be beneficial," says Corey Ostman, director of new technology initiatives at PriceGrabber.com in Culver City, Calif. "One of the biggest challenges would be if these commercial companies morph the [open source] products in such a way that they no longer offer leading-edge technologies."
Even if that does happen, Ostman says he is convinced that the open source community likely will develop alternatives to fill the gap.
"The open source marketplace has always been competitive and dynamic," he says.
It's that kind of innovation, coupled with growing corporate interest, that is driving commercial vendors to take a closer look at their open source counterparts.
"The jig is up for commercial vendors," says Richard Monson-Haefel, a senior analyst at Burton Group. "They're discovering that in certain cases open source software is basically pulling the rug out from under them by commoditizing the market."
"They've tried to resist . . . originally by spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt, and then by challenging the quality of the software. But now they're buying the companies that are sponsoring the [open source] work," he says.
Gartner predicts that by 2010, software vendors that don't incorporate open source software into their products risk becoming uncompetitive because of the cost associated with relying on in-house engineering resources.
Part of the allure for commercial vendors is the opportunity to attract more developers with low-cost, open products, with the hope of driving business upstream into more robust - and expensive - offerings for broader production deployments.
"What the vendors are trying to do here is they're trying to find a foothold in a market that is changing rapidly and substantially," Monson-Haefel says. "And they're also trying to find ways in which to guide people who are adopting open source to their commercial offerings as they look for more robust and sophisticated platforms."
For that reason, some industry watchers say open source products are in good hands when acquired by responsible commercial software makers.
"It's just not in their interest to destroy the community or stifle the ongoing development," says Tony Wasserman, executive director of the Center for Open Source Investigation at Carnegie Mellon University's campus in Moffett Field, Calif.
As in any vendor acquisition, some purchasers will be better shepherds than others, Wasserman says. "Acquisitions tend to work or not work - in both the commercial and open source world - based on what the acquirer does," he says.
Joel Snyder, senior partner at consulting firm Opus One and a Network World Lab Alliance member, sees lots of potential in open source vendor acquisitions. "Companies should be happy when they see a big name behind an open source project, because it generally means more and better support, rather than less," he says.
To some extent, the trend is inevitable. "Really solid enterprise software always seems to need some commercial backing," Snyder says. Some of the most significant open source projects - Linux, BIND, MySQL and Sendmail - are where they are largely because of corporate dollars being poured into them, he says.
After all, altruism alone isn't going to sustain software developers who have to make a living, Snyder says. "The reality is that the two - commercial and open source - actually thrive better together than they do separately," he says.
Bob Hecht is aware of the potential for open source players to get purchased, but that doesn't deter him from depending on open source software for mission-critical systems at his company, Informa.
"One of the biggest risks that companies have in purchasing open source software is success," says Hecht, who is vice president of content strategies at the London firm that produces publications, events and data services worldwide. "Success means that somebody is going to end up offering somebody a lot of money to buy it out."
Informa runs a full Linux stack for many of its front-end applications, and it has embedded Apache's Lucene search engine in dozens of applications, Hecht says. It has tinkered with Liferay's portal, and it's getting ready to go live with its first deployment of Alfresco Software's open source enterprise content management software.
In addition, Informa is preparing to deploy a multimillion-dollar content delivery platform that uses a MySQL repository, he says.
"I'm comfortable in saying that if we build something on an open source platform and it gets bought, it's ours anyway," he says. "The implication is for future development, but open source has a way of living. It finds a way."
To prepare for a scenario in which development or support for an open source application is cut off, Hecht makes sure Informa's internal development staff is skilled with the product. "We look at it as a reason to get as familiar and capable with this platform as we possibly can so that we essentially secure our future. If we do, then we immunize ourselves from potential problems like that," he says.
Regardless, the commercial interest in open source should send a message to IT buyers that open source is here to stay.
"If you've had doubts that open source is mainstream today, the amount of money being thrown around here should make you believe this is not just a flash in the pan," says Michael Goulde, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. "It should be something you're considering, if you're not already."