Comfortable with Linux, organizations look for new opportunities to employ open source tools

The open source support center at Fidelity Investments is humming. The organization, formed two years ago within the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology, is responsible for determining where - and how - open source software fits in the financial services giant's broad IT infrastructure.

Fidelity has been using Linux for years, so long that Charlie Brenner, senior vice president of FCAT in Boston, says the operating system is "part of the DNA here." What's of interest now, he says, is moving up the stack. "We would love to run fewer proprietary" applications.

The appeal of innovative, broadly tested, community-supported, low-cost software that provides the added incentive of sidestepping vendor lock-in is enticing more companies to take a look at what's available beyond Linux.

Open source tools such as Linux and the Apache Web server are considered the old guard, used in various ways in most enterprise data centers. But momentum is building around infrastructure applications such as the JBoss application server, databases such as MySQL and PostgreSQL, and security tools such as OpenSSL and Snort . Content management and collaboration tools also are getting a second look. CRM and ERP are emerging as open source alternatives, as is code for IP PBXs and other network gear.

Analysts say a growing number of enterprise users are turning to maturing open source tools. Gartner predicts that by 2008 open source software will compete with proprietary products in all software markets. By 2010, the Global 2000 will consider open source for 80% of their infrastructure investments and for a quarter of their business software needs. It's a dramatic change considering that last year open source was considered in fewer than 5% of business application decisions.

"The barriers [to open source] are falling away," says Mark Driver, a vice president and research analyst at Gartner. "Companies who would not have considered open source software in the past because they were worried about nightmare scenarios, now are saying, 'If we were successful with Linux, maybe we can be successful with databases, with content management.'"

Client requests for information regarding open source are "coming out of the woodwork," Driver says. Gartner will hold its first open source-focused conference in December.

Why now?

As companies become more comfortable with Linux, they are more receptive to bringing in a wider variety of open source tools - all part of an industry move toward open standards.

"It's a general trend in the industry towards having more choice, to not being locked in to any one proprietary vendor," says Adam Jollans, chief Linux technologist for IBM's software group. IBM in May gave a nod to the growing interest in open source applications by buying Gluecode Software, a company that provides software and support for the Apache Geronimo application server that competes with IBM's WebSphere at the low-end.

"Part of it is customers have had experience with Linux and have found that the operating system is great," Jollans says. "They like it a lot, they like what it's providing in terms of choice and they want that kind of flexibility in other areas."

A recent Forrester survey of 128 IT decision makers found that nearly three-quarters are using open source or Linux now or plan to in the next 12 months. Not surprisingly, the majority of those are using Linux or the Apache Web server, but tools such as MySQL, JBoss and the Struts application development framework are included on the list of tools in use.

"You're going to hear a lot more about open source solutions higher up the stack and a lot less about Linux only," predicts Efrain Rovira, worldwide director of marketing for HP's Linux organization, which earlier this year was renamed the Open Source and Linux organization to reflect HP's expanded focus.

"We're moving from a phase where it was about Linux and Apache on the edge to a phase where it's [infrastructure software]: JBoss, Geronimo , MySQL, PostgreSQL, Ingress. The next phase is when open source moves even higher up the stack to ERP and CRM," Rovira says.

Charles Hausmann, CTO and co-founder of VaultLogix, an Ipswich, Mass., provider of offsite data backup services, has already made that move.

VaultLogix deployed SugarCRM's software last summer and today runs the newly available Sugar Professional 3.0, which adds document management, project management and help desk features to the suite's core sales and marketing capabilities.

One advantage of an open source CRM package is being able to try before buying. "We downloaded, installed and started using it for a few months before we bought it," Hausmann says. "It was exactly what we needed. It wasn't overkill and the sales guys weren't afraid to use it."

Hausmann has been using open source products for more than a decade and has watched the industry mature. "Now you can get support for MySQL and PostgreSQL - which are very stable, very good alternatives to Oracle or DB2. With that kind of stability available for the corporate market, it's leading the way for people to ask, 'OK, what else is in this bucket?'" he says.

A growing support system

At the same time, analysts stress that users have to keep their eyes open, making sure support is available, the software has been tested and certified and the long-term plans of the project are sound.

In addition, while the software is inexpensive, you have to assess costs associated with service and support, training and overcoming hurdles in integrating the tools with legacy infrastructure.

"There's still this mentality where people think open source equals free," says Robert Kunz, president and CEO of Knowledge Blue, which sells implementation and support services for Compiere's open source ERP applications and also uses the software in-house. "It's far from that. You're going to want to make enhancements, you're going to need support."

Similar issues dogged Linux early on. But it has matured into a mainstream operating system with support from all major systems vendors and an expanding independent software vendor community.

The same thing is happening as open source moves up the stack. A number of vendors are emerging to provide the kind of support system that enterprise users demand. HP, for example, earlier this year expanded its relationship with JBoss to provide Level 1 and Level 2 support for the open source application server.

It's one thing to pull some open source tools off the Internet to save from having to develop code for a small internal project, says Bob Igou, a principal analyst at Gartner. "But as more and more open source goes into mission-critical parts of the infrastructure, the IT organization has to worry about the same things they worry about for all of their software - support, certification, interoperability."

In a report issued in April, Gartner noted that while just 17% of users it surveyed were using open source software, half of those deployments were considered mission critical.

Analysts and users alike recommend that organizations create an internal open source advisory group before jumping into mission-critical open source projects.

"The purpose of our open source support center was basically to make open source safe and effective to use inside the corporate environment," Fidelity's Brenner says. "We provide the kind of envelope of security and support they were accustomed to getting from their commercial vendor."

With start-ups such as SpikeSource emerging - which certifies and supports integrated open source packages - there is an opportunity to offload the more mundane functions, he says.

"There is absolutely no point in my having a dedicated team validating a LAMP [Linux, Apache, MySQL, Perl/PHP] stack, when somebody else is out there doing it," Brenner says. "That way, I'm free to have our own staff provide support on things that are naturally proprietary to us."

Although questions about, intellectual property rights remain - highlighted by The SCO Group's claims that IBM illegally contributed its proprietary Unix code into Linux - the lawsuits don't seem to be holding up the adoption of Linux associated or other open source software.

"The reality is [open source licenses] almost invariably say if you're an end user you can do whatever you want with this stuff," says Bob Gett, president and CEO of Optaros, a consulting and systems integration company. "It's only if you're a vendor that it becomes an issue."

Nevertheless, companies such as Black Duck and Palamida have been founded to provide end users with tools to keep track of open source software licenses. At the same time, a move is afoot to reduce the number of licenses users have to deal with.

Looking for flexibility

Aviva Canada, an insurance firm in Toronto, made its first foray into open source three years ago when it began deploying Linux. It now has more than 50 servers running Red Hat and began moving up the stack about two years ago, deploying the JBoss application server in test environments.

JBoss moved into production after executives analyzed costs. "When we realized how much the commercial vendor was going to cost and that it was going to put us way over budget, it provided the impetus to say, 'Yeah, let's try this JBoss thing,'" says enterprise application architect Daniel Brum.

Aviva Canada uses JBoss to stitch its PostgreSQL database to its consumer-facing portal, enabling customers to search for insurance quotes online. By using the open source tools the company has avoided some $300,000 in upfront costs and around $100,000 in annual maintenance fees compared to comparable commercial offerings, Brum says. The company now has three portals running on JBoss and PostgreSQL, as well as a Project Rosetta middleware application that is used to broker interactions and move data among systems. Cost savings might have been the initial driver, but the benefits go way beyond that, Brum says.

"By sticking with open source it's given us flexibility and the ability to follow an open model," he says. "We're not locked in to any vendor. We didn't want our hands tied, to always have to follow the game rules of any one vendor. We wanted flexibility and open source gave us that."

Noel Proffitt, senior IS analyst at the city of Garden Grove, Calif., agrees that flexibility is a key perk.

"One of the big advantages is we don't have to budget or plan for using a lot of open source software, we can just start deploying it, so there is a whole level of authorization that doesn't need to take place," Proffitt says. "And, of the course, the liberal licensing [lets us avoid] another level of administration if we want to expand our environment."

Garden Grove was on the bleeding edge of open source adoption when it deployed Linux in 1995. Since then, it has brought in myriad open source projects, including Linux-based routers and firewalls, network monitoring, an application and content management system called Zope and the PostgreSQL database.

By using open source rather than proprietary products, the city estimates it has avoided about $400,000 in initial costs and is saving taxpayers some $75,000 annually in licensing and maintenance fees.

Taking control

Cost savings are important, but the fact that the open source projects are peer reviewed and examined by a community of open source experts makes the software more reliable and responsive to user demands, Proffitt says.

"The products tend to be longer lived and more flexible" than proprietary software, he says. "We're able to bend them in a lot more ways than we could with proprietary systems. And if there's a problem that's irritating enough, we can get into the code and fix it ourselves."

Mark Greene, senior manager for software development at Tekelec, a maker of signaling and switching gear for the telecom industry, agrees. The Calabasas, Calif., company uses Emic Networks' high availability clustering software to keep its MySQL database up and running and is looking to bring in open source in other areas.

"It's the ability to control your source code," Greene says. "We have commitments as to how fast we must respond to issues in the field. Just the overhead of getting a big vendor to respond to you, and then getting a fix and getting it through your implementation cycle and tested and out to the field - there are limits to how fast you can do that. Here we have total access to the software, we become the owners of that."

Support from the open source community helps.

"They're very friendly and eager," says Aviva Canada's Brum. "You can find them quite easily, whereas a lot of times with commercial software you have to escalate through different levels until you finally find someone who knows what's going on."

Community-driven change

It's that community-driven support and innovation that will make the open source movement an industry-changing force in the years ahead, analysts say.

While Gartner predicts open source will account for no more than 10% of all software deployments in Global 2000 companies through 2010, it says 95% of those companies will have "formal open source acquisition and management strategies" in place by 2008.

"We've only just begun to scratch the surface of what community development can bring to the table," says Michael Goulde, a senior analyst at Forrester.

In turn, commercial vendors will be pressured to rise to higher standards and play by new rules.

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