Open source products grab corporate attention

Analysts say that in the move to cut costs and drive efficiencies, enterprise users are starting to get more serious about open source products such as Jboss; and databases such as MySQL and PostgreSQL, the Apache Web server, the Samba file and print server, and OpenOffice desktop software.

When the Internet travel market began to kick into high gear in 2002, National Leisure Group, which sells vacation packages through sites such as Orbitz and Priceline.com, knew it had to step its services up a notch. It embarked on a project to create an online system that could put together custom vacations for prospective customers in minutes.

That meant writing a new application and extending its application server platform.

"When we did that we had a bunch of choices to make. We had already been using J2EE as our application development environment for other applications in the business, but we had been a traditional consumer of commercial application servers," says Jamie Cash, director of technical architecture for NLG in Woburn, Mass.

Cash and his team looked at the costs involved in expanding their server farm to support a broader BEA WebLogic deployment and realized the costs would be a definite hurdle.

"So we began to seek alternatives," he says. "The alternative we landed on was [open source application server] JBoss."

NLG had the JBoss platform running by April 2003. In the first year alone, the savings associated with using the open source application server as opposed to the commercial BEA software amounted to $1 million in avoided licensing fees, Cash says.

"And we were able to scale much faster in terms of technical perspective and in terms of the business," he says.

Alternatives beyond Linux

NLG is not alone in looking at open source alternatives beyond Linux. Analysts say that in the move to cut costs and drive efficiencies, enterprise users are starting to get more serious about open source products such as Jboss; and databases such as MySQL and PostgreSQL, the Apache Web server, the Samba file and print server, and OpenOffice desktop software.

"The trend is that organizations are trying to find cost reduction strategies that allow them to continue to do what they're doing but do it at a lower cost structure," says Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of systems software at IDC. "They are considering open source software where it's appropriate. JBoss, MySQL, PostgreSQL are on the list of things that people are looking for."

A Forrester Research survey of 140 North American firms earlier this year found that 46% of respondents are using open source software today, and 14% have plans to bring open source into their data centers in the future. Thirty-nine percent of the companies said they had no plans for open source software, citing lack of skills and lack of support as primary inhibitors.

Ups and downs of open source

Corporate users, pleased with the capabilities of Linux, are taking a closer look at open source software such as databases and application servers. Some things to consider when moving up the open source stack:
Pros:
Cost. As far as software acquisition costs go, open source products are free.
Flexibility. Just like Linux, open source software frees companies from vendor lock-in.
Close to the code. With open source, enterprise users can pinpoint problems in specific code and suggest patches to solve problems.
Growing support. Vendors such as HP, Red Hat and Novell are enhancing support for open source products beyond Linux.
Cons:
Cost. While acquisition costs are free, corporate users must pay for support and services, and there are often costs associated with training IT staff.
Integration. Today, users are on their own when it comes to integrating open source products into legacy infrastructure, although this is starting to change with companies as varied as Gluecode and HP rolling out support for open source stacks.
Capabilities. Today’s open source databases and application servers are technically very good, but still not up to par with heavy-duty commercial offerings such as DB2 or WebLogic.
Intellectual property. The SCO Group’s legal assault against Linux should serve as a warning shot for any company considering open source. Understand the open source license governing the product and what your rights and responsibilities are.

"[Open source software] has been a very active area of inquiry for about a year," says John Rymer, a vice president at Forrester who focuses on J2EE application servers such as JBoss. "In other words, clients are calling me up and asking me, 'Should we be using it? Is anybody using it? We love the price. We'd love to make greater use of it. What are the risks?' Those kinds of questions."

The uptick in interest is driven in large part by the growing acceptance of Linux within corporate data centers, analysts say. In many cases, companies have become familiar with Linux, making them more amenable to moving up the stack within the open source community.

"Companies have gotten comfortable with Linux, and they're scratching their heads and saying, 'The argument for Linux was total cost of ownership and skills, and our developers like it and applications are supporting it,'" says Pierre Fricke, an analyst at D.H. Brown Associates. "Then they start thinking, 'What about this thing called JBoss. Doesn't it offer some of the same things?' And it does."

Eyes wide open

Those that are bringing open source software into their data centers need to do so with their eyes open, analysts say. While the software itself may be free, there are costs associated with service and support, efforts to bring internal IT staff up to speed on the new technology and integration challenges with existing infrastructure. The bottom line is open source software should be evaluated in the same way as any commercial offering.

"So you find a good piece of code that was produced by a project team and it's available for free. You have to ask: Will that project team continue to invest in the project? Is there any funding mechanism to ensure that they'll be able to continue to invest effort? Do they have a road map? Are they going in a direction you need them to go," Rymer says. "If you were to buy software from a commercial start-up vendor, you'd be asking these questions. You really need to ask them for open source, too."

Analysts note that intellectual property issues could be a concern. Linux users are well aware of The SCO Group's legal claims that Linux illegally contains its copyrighted Unix code. Forrester recommends that corporate customers set up an open source advisory committee made up of lawyers, developers and procurement specialists.

Despite the SCO flap, Linux continues to gain acceptance. It has matured into a mainstream operating system with support from all the major systems vendors and an independent software vendor community that's expanding. While lack of Tier 1 support had been a major hurdle for Linux, Sun, HP, IBM and Dell all now support the operating system.

Open source software is following a similar path. In June, for example, HP announced that it was partnering with The JBoss Group and MySQL to provide technical support for the two open source projects on its ProLiant and Integrity servers.

Big vendor backing

The fact is, customers are looking for flexibility and the ability to move from vendor to vendor, says Efrain Rovira, worldwide director of marketing for HP's Linux organization. Linux and open source software both provide that. Rovira says enterprise users can expect HP to deepen its support for JBoss and MySQL and extend its open source offerings, in an effort to respond to customer demands.

Others, such as Novell, are making efforts to ease the process of bringing open source middleware into corporate data centers. In August, Novell announced it was bundling JBoss into its SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 9. Red Hat also unveiled its Red Hat Application server.

At LinuxWorld in August, IBM announced it was contributing its Cloudscape embedded database software to the open source Apache Software Foundation. Computer Associates also announced that it was putting its Ingress database into the open source realm.

Rod Smith, vice president of emerging technologies at IBM, says enterprise users can expect to see IBM step up its support of open source software. But he notes that there will remain a place for more heavy-duty, proprietary offerings, such as IBM's WebSphere application server and DB2 database.

"There is no one size fits all. MySQL does some things very nicely. In other areas, such as transactional models for high-performance applications, it's probably not as good," he says. "There will be plenty of room for proprietary and open source systems for quite a while."

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