Real deal: Deploying open source in the enterprise

Companies aren't toying with open source tools, they're deploying them to support business critical functions. Here's a look at how some organizations are exploiting the technology.

Lori Key was concerned about her software vendor. The company, which she declines to name, provided North Carolina's Johnston County with map-serving software to power an application that gives its 145,000 citizens crucial information about every parcel of land in the area. But the vendor was having financial trouble and because the county rented the software, Key knew she would be left with nothing should the developer declare bankruptcy.

The fear of having nothing to show for years of paying software fees played a strong role in the county's decision to switch to an open source map-serving product called MapServer developed at the University of Minnesota, says Key, an analyst with Johnston County's technology services department. MapServer, along with other open source components including the PostgreSQL database and Refractions Research's PostGIS for working with geographical objects, allowed the county to sever its dependency on commercial software for its geographic information system application.

"It all comes down to control; we wanted more control over our own application," Key says. "We had been hearing about the benefits of open source, and we thought, 'All the money we spent for support and to upgrade software with vendors can now be spent on new functionality and improving the application,' " she remembers.

Many organizations are finding the move not just to open source operating systems but critical applications to be a worthwhile one, though it's still far from a mainstream decision. Within the next three to five years, Forrester Research Senior Analyst Michael Goulde expects more companies to bet on open source applications not only for the cost savings, but also to cut down on headaches that proprietary software causes.

"One of the realms you always get into with business applications is they never quite do the job the way you want it done. With proprietary software you always have to chase down the vendor to get customization," Goulde says. "One real attraction of open source business applications is conceivably anybody can do the customization and support it."

Ready for primetime

Some companies are ready to jump into open source applications now. "There has been a lot of legitimate concern in recent years that open source was not commercial grade, and it wasn't," says David Whiles, director of IS at Midland Memorial Hospital in Texas. "But I believe its time has come."

Midland Memorial is marking a first in the private healthcare sector with its recent decision to roll out an open source application that will provide the hospital and clinics with an integrated Electronic Medical Record, including Computerized Physician Order Entry, Bar Code Medication Administration and Picture Archiving and Communication. While one draw may be the price they paid for the application - nothing - the best part is that the OpenVista application from Medsphere is the result of years of engineering, Whiles says. The application is based on the open source Vista Electronic Health Record applications created and battle-tested by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"This is 20 years in development, very functionally rich and it is available through the Freedom of Information Act. It is public domain, anyone can download it," Whiles says. Medsphere is providing the consulting support, including installing and configuring the system, training staff and supplying ongoing maintenance.

"Our ultimate goal is to have a full open source stack with Red Hat for the operating system, MUMPS [a development language] and then the business software," says Whiles, who is five months into a rollout that should be completed by year-end.

What drove Whiles to make such a calculated move at his 370-bed county hospital? "Sticker shock," he says. "To do what we wanted to do was out of our reach economically." Eventually the hospital spent $7.1 million as opposed to the more than $18 million it was facing in the commercial software world.

While the advantages of open source applications are many, potential converts should beware of leaving behind commercial products for purely political reasons. "I'm just looking for the best tools for the job," says Ed Bailey, director of IT at the University of Florida's Department of Materials Science and Engineering in Gainesville. Upon his arrival at this position three years ago, Bailey started moving as many computers as possible to Linux . "I need products I can rely on, and I just can't do that with Windows," he says. "Some people here are real fanatics, everything has to be open source. I'm just trying to be pragmatic and meet our needs."

The department has migrated all of its servers to Linux save one, a Windows Terminal server that Bailey says does a great job.

Of course, being the one responsible for bringing open source into an organization can be an uncomfortable position. For Steve Adams, a technical architect with the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), the biggest challenge he's faced in adopting open source are the skeptics he encounters. "Open source is not the known, comfortable platform. People have a misconception, a misunderstanding of what the open source community means, especially in terms of support," he says.

Adams since 2002 has embraced open source to handle many application and computing needs using the five Linux servers he maintains that run inside a virtual machine on the organization's mainframe. His most important application might be a piece of homegrown middleware called FXE2 developed with open source tools to tie together a legacy CICS mainframe drivers' license application and the Windows PC that acts as the point-of-sale front end at the Department of Motor Vehicles offices.

It was a group of midlevel managers who had the foresight to explore open source in the face of dwindling state budgets that spurred ODOT to make the move. That foresight helped when the predecessor to FXE2 needed to be replaced. Adams estimates ODOT saved upwards of $120,000 by moving the application to open source and Linux on the mainframe, instead of to a Windows-based Intel architecture. He says that success is helping change management's perception of open source and has attracted attention from other agencies in Oregon.

Pick and choose

Among the organizations that have successfully adopted open source for critical applications, coming up with some sort of policy for when to go open source has helped.

Open source makes sense "in cases where [the application] is really core to the business, where we want to have total control over everything from top to bottom," explains Bob Gatewood, CTO of Athenahealth, developer of physicians' front-office software that is based on open source. The company recently adopted an open source CRM tool by SugarCRM to replace's suite, which the company had just grown out of. "Our business had grown and matured and we needed to integrate the business system operations. We had to twist ourselves into a pretzel in order to make some of the processes work," Gatewood says of "We would have had to build [a CRM system] ourselves if Sugar hadn't come along."

Another way Athenahealth uses open source is in the early stages of a project when the organization is not quite sure what the requirements are or whether it really wants to commit to a certain product, Gatewood says.

When first implementing open source, experienced users say it's best to find success with a small project first before attempting an organization-wide rollout. "Start small and build your own confidence in the open source world. Once you see how stable the products are you will feel more comfortable to move," says Ruth Schall, director of MIS for the city of Kenosha, Wis.

Not that she's exactly taken her own advice. The city has migrated its homegrown legacy applications for taxes, billing and payroll to Linux and open source, and has added Neoware Linux-based thin clients on the desktop with applications for spreadsheets and word processing. "We took a chance on this; we had our backs against the wall. But we proved we could run on open source. People no longer think it is strange what we are doing," Schall says.

Many open source converts say the common conception that it's difficult to find good, fair-priced support for applications is largely false.

"One of the things I hear a lot of is people are concerned about support costs, 'Where do you go for tech support, where do you go for help?' " Schall says. But she says support compared with her 15 years in a mainframe environment has gotten better with the move to open source. "We have been able to rely on the [open source] community when we have had issues."

However, Johnston County's Key adds that it's also important to pick open source applications that are proven and well documented. "Make sure you go with a mature open source product, there are a lot of products out there with not a lot of support yet," she says. "You need really good documents and FAQs."

Many proponents say the challenges they've faced implementing open source applications are quite similar to those encountered when moving to any new product; bugs in the code, end-user learning curves, working the kinks out of support.

The upshot

• Companies increasingly are adopting open source applications, citing their flexibility, cost savings and the ability to have more control over the software. One warning: Be prepared to give some software back to the open source community.

But using open source products does come with one unique issue: the concept of giving back to the open source community.

"I haven't yet figured out how to contribute back to the community," Gatewood says. "We use open source so much, but I haven't found a good project to give back yet." But there's a project in the works at Athenahealth that may be the perfect candidate; Gatewood says his staff plans to integrate SugarCRM with Microsoft Great Plains financial system.

"I would encourage CIOs, if you're going to start using open source you should start thinking early what you're going to give back," Gatewood advises. "It stops working if you don't give back."

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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