A prescription for lower costs

Open source technologies help McKesson deliver lower-cost IT solutions to its healthcare customers by trimming the tab for hardware and software

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What were the biggest challenges you faced in deploying open source technologies?One of the challenges was the business model of some of the companies that we depended on. We're in a tightly controlled and carefully licensed world. Not all suppliers of open source software appreciate the license strictures we have, and in some cases don't appreciate our profit motive. Some were more interested in producing interesting code than building a survivable business. So, it took a little while for us to work through the licensing and legal issues in how we would use, package and protect ourselves from potential downstream claims on our intellectual property. And it took a while to reach good working relationships with our key suppliers.Did you have to change any suppliers because you couldn't work through those kinds of issues?Early on we did. But I think the industry in general faced that set of issues more or less simultaneously. Everybody was working through them at about the same time.Have you encountered any dangers in using open source?Like any software, you have to subject it to diligent testing and add your own quality measures on top. I can't say that all the open source software we've attempted to use has been high quality. But I don't think it's presented a danger, more of a challenge.To what extent are you using open source internally in your IT organization?Internally we have probably 15% or so of our server environment under Linux. And we're constantly standing up new Linux servers for R&D. But in terms of production environments the company depends on, it's modestly penetrated.Is it growing?Yes, it's definitely growing. We were going down a Linux strategy pretty heavily three years ago when we ran into a pretty good speed bump in trying to scale one of our critical applications, and had to retrench and go back to a proprietary operating system to get the performance we needed. That made the businesses very cautious about pursuing it aggressively again. All of our experience tells us that the maturation has been significant since then, but we're slow-rolling it. We tend to put newer, lower-end applications up on Linux and leave the existing apps that are already running on other systems on those systems rather than undertake the risk of change.What advice can you give to others who are looking to employ open source technologies?My first piece of advice is it's a very good strategy. But it does not relieve you of the responsibility to manage your development shop effectively. You can't expect to defer portions of your development lifecycle -- your [quality assurance], your test plans, your quality measures and such -- to someone else. Using the more mature platforms, such as the operating systems that are fully supported, it's been an extremely cost-beneficial strategy for us. My advice would be to not shy away from tackling it.What are your plans for open source going forward?We continue to investigate other open source offerings. We’re testing out some open source database capabilities that have the potential to replace proprietary database offerings. We continue to extend open source platforms in our infrastructure. As open source applications mature, we’re keeping an eye on and evaluating the replacement of some proprietary applications, like [Microsoft] Office for example.How is that evaluation going?We don't think [open source office-productivity products are] quite ready for an organization of our size, but I think they're getting close. The replacements for Word and Excel and PowerPoint are probably closer than replacements for Exchange. I think the e-mail and calendaring have a ways to go, but the document-based solutions, for at least a segment of our user base, are getting close. I don't want that to be portrayed as we're ready to switch, but we're certainly seeing a closure in the gaps.What do you think the future holds for the role of open source in the industry in general?I think it plays a strong role in the future. There are some uncertainties about the revenue model. In the end, everything depends on survivable solutions, so if you look at some of these little, tiny companies that are trying to pin a financial future to small code-libraries and such, I think they're going to find it difficult to stay alive. But in general, I think it will mature and the open source industry probably will undergo some reorganization itself through market forces not only around consolidation but probably more converged access and more converged common connections or interfaces between the software.Expand on that -- converged access and common connections.If you look at the open source world, it's a collection of everything from useful little applications to little parts and pieces used to build applications and operating systems to run those applications on. But when you get out to the end of the application world, you have fairly large-scale applications that are supporting significant business processes; and those processes need to connect with related business processes. For example, if I'm developing a contract for a customer, that contract has to connect to our quoting system, our contract-management system, our invoicing system and the like. And the open source industry isn't yet to a point where it's offering these large-scale applications. So, for open source to mature beyond what is essentially a tools environment, it’s going to need to penetrate the space that's presently occupied by proprietary application vendors. And that means converging some of these tools into larger-scale applications and having those applications share everything from common data definitions to common information-interchange protocols. Think of an open source SAP or an open source Oracle Financials. How do we get there? Because that’s really where the business value is. Bottom line is I think open source has a strong and bright future, but it's really hard to predict the direction it's going to go because it's so facile.

Desmond is events editor for Network World and president of PDEdit, an IT publishing company in Southborough, Mass. Reach him at paul@pdedit.com.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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