An open and shut case?

Will the open source revolution swallow the software market? ITWeb held a round table discussion on the issue with open- and closed-source supporters.
Read time 10min 00sec

Open source software (OSS) is on the agenda of the enterprise and each year seems to become a more viable alterative. Worldwide, pockets of adoption have been seen but, to date, no enterprise has gone completely open source.

The potential for increased adoption looks strong, but for many the landscape remains pretty fuzzy. Two overriding questions persist:

* Will open source ever reach the point of mass adoption from top to bottom, or will companies always need a mixed strategy?

* What are the trends driving open source? And what is keeping it out of the enterprise?

Microsoft`s platform strategist Albie Bester believes it is unlikely any organisation will go Linux or Microsoft from top to bottom. "I believe enterprise environments will always make use of a mix of technology, as they always have.

"Businesses make decisions on what`s most appropriate, based on what platforms chosen applications will support and what current skills levels are," says Bester.

Joe Ruthven, IBM`s business development manager, Linux, OSS and open standards, agrees the operating system choice should be based on the applications being used in the business and, "that application choice should be based on the business`s needs".

While open source holds massive potential, Ruthven says closed source will always be of value. "I do, however, believe the percentage split between open and closed source will change, in favour of open source."

"We often tell our clients it`s our job to find the perfect balance between closed and open source solutions for them, to help them decide where it`s appropriate and where it`s not," adds Obsidian`s MD Muggie van Staden.

Skills an inhibitor

Skills are the biggest inhibitor to Linux and open source adoption, says Ruthven. "When it comes to Linux the skills challenge varies. If an organisation is using it in the data centre, chances are there will be strong Unix skills prevalent. On the desktop front, those skills will almost certainly not be there."

In using open source, SMEs can get 'there or thereabouts` in terms of the functionality offered by Microsoft solutions.

Gary Fortuin, MD, ImpiLinux

One reason behind the shift towards open source, according to Ruthven, is there are not enough software developers in the world to write the software the market needs. "The more we can open source, the more the world`s limited development community can collaborate and get the software it needs written."

Warren Machanik, president of the International Association of Microsoft Certified Partners, raises a concern about the open source development model. "Applications in the open source model are generally grown in a siloed development environment. In many cases, there`s no moderation taking place at the top of the stack - this means that often, when you`re using a Linux application and something goes wrong with it, you have to rely on the community for support."

However, Jos Nickmans, Sun`s alliance, channel and marketing manager, says Machanik`s comment is based on a misconception. "The market needs to understand that in the open source world, some of the coding is done in a wild, maverick fashion and some of the code is developed in a properly moderated environment. There are numerous bodies in the market ensuring code is not only ready for the enterprise, but it is also well supported. In a nutshell, there`s a commercial and a non-commercial side to open source. Enterprises must be sure to make use of the commercially viable solutions."

Ruthven agrees: "The key to open source is the code must be open, accessible and modifiable. Just because you are able to make a code change to the version of Linux you`re using, and then send that change in for inclusion in an upcoming version, doesn`t mean that you are changing the Linux operating system. Your change needs to go through a moderation process before it becomes part of the next Linux release."

Free, but supported

When it comes to freedom, the Linux market is in a bit of a quandary of late. While open source and Linux are supposed to be freely modifiable, tampering with one of the numerous commercial versions of Linux available spells the cessation of support agreements.

The market and vendors are struggling to communicate to customers how one should go about retaining the freedom that open source provides while ensuring that code is robust.

Ruthven says common sense wins out here. "If you want to run your mission-critical software on Linux, you`re not likely to do it using a Linux version you`ve downloaded off the Web. Remember, you get what you pay for."

Van Staden agrees: "It`s unreasonable to expect a vendor to provide unlimited support for a product it has no quality control over. It needs to be involved in the modifications you`re making should you want to retain your service agreement."

Novell`s engineering manager Allison Singh says if the customer wants to make changes to their Linux solution, it must make sense to the organisation. "If it makes sense to the organisation and we`re involved in the modifications, it will be supported within their support and maintenance contract."

ImpiLinux`s MD Gary Fortuin agrees: "It`s not the customer`s business to change the code. It`s our business and that`s why the vendor has to be involved."

Obsidian`s Van Staden says the community-led Linux distributions have a valuable part to play in the continuation of the open source movement. "Through projects like Red Hat`s Fedora Core and Novell`s Open Suse, a great deal of the custom development taking place in the "cutting-edge" space is spawning into the enterprise space. The great part is the community keeps moving forward with new developments."

Bester says Microsoft`s experience has been customers aren`t too concerned with their ability to make changes to software code. "It`s about cost and uptime," he says. "When a customer begins listing their priorities, there`s nothing that Linux does better than Windows, or vice versa.

"Even in the cost stakes, we believe Windows and Linux will cost the same in the long run if the customer considers all the maintenance contracts, support contracts and skills development exercises they need to undergo in order to use Linux.

"There`s also no proof that Linux is faster than Windows and no proof that Linux runs better on legacy hardware. I believe the hype surrounding this is finally starting to filter out."

So, why move?

Fortuin poses the question: Why are organisations increasingly investigating open source solutions and moving away from proprietary solutions?

Machanik believes there`s still a great deal of noise in the market regarding open source. "Ninety percent of the time people are investigating some form of alternative. They`re simply finding out whether there`s anything Linux and open source offers that Windows doesn`t."

We`re working closer with open source vendors than we ever have before.

Albie Bester, platform strategist, Microsoft

Ruthven, however, believes open source is a hot topic today because it gives freedom. "It`s about stopping vendor lock-in and ensuring customers are freer in their technology decisions. It`s about the ability to move from one vendor to another if they need to, without hassle.

"Linux and open source don`t do that alone, however," he adds. "Open standards really achieve that."

Taking up the open standards debate, Bester says government has been trying to get away from proprietary software unnecessarily, in the hope of using open standards. "Not all open source adheres to open standards and, ironically, most proprietary software makes use of open standards in some form."

Ruthven admits vendors and the industry as a whole need to do a better job about communicating what a standard is, and what an open standard is.

"The problem is there are too many standards today. The Web services area alone has 100 standards. Even when IBM and Microsoft got together for a public demonstration on how their solutions could 'talk` to each other, the results were disastrous. That`s because each party interpreted the standard differently."

When considering moving to open source, companies invariably expect to lower their software costs. "In the enterprise, there are definitely cost benefits," says Novell`s Singh. "But, I must stress, open source implementations are not to be done in a 'big bang` approach. Companies need to identify where open source is appropriate before implementing it."

It`s also about manageability, he says. "While enterprises may want to roll an open source solution out, they need the capability to manage it. In this area, change management also plays a massive role.

"We know when we change a single icon on a user`s desktop, it often changes their entire world. If users aren`t educated properly, they will simply say they cannot use the new application and force the company to change back to the previous solution."

Fortuin believes the cost of Microsoft`s software is a barrier to entry for most small and medium enterprises (SMEs). "In using open source, SMEs can get 'there or thereabouts` in terms of the functionality offered by Microsoft solutions."

Bester counters, saying Microsoft calls this the "good enough" approach. "If I start a company and can only afford a fridge, a kettle and a 386 computer, and furthermore use open source technology on that computer, I should only expect what I pay for.

"In our experience, the 'good enough` approach works for six months. Sooner or later these users switch," he adds.

Proprietary vendor options

In a Gartner user wants and needs survey completed in October 2004, respondents indicated that 17% of all installed software was OSS, compared with 46% that was proprietary. Of the OSS software deployed, 52% was classified as mission-critical by respondents.

The analyst says Linux is the fastest-growing open source server and expects Linux shipments to increase from 1.4 million units in 2005 to 2.4 million in 2010, representing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.7%. It also predicts revenue will grow from $6.5 billion in 2005 to $11.5 billion in 2010, a CAGR of 12.2%. Most of that growth, it says, will come from servers costing less than $25 000.

With clear growth in open source worldwide, the pressure must be mounting on all closed source vendors. How will these vendors curb the trend and ensure they are able to grow their own organisations year-on-year?

Bester says this is something Microsoft took a long time to figure out. "There is no value in saying one thing is a cancer and the other isn`t. Microsoft realises it`s all about value and what we plan to do going forward is to provide better value to our customers. If they get better value from our solutions, they will continue to use our software.

"Are we trying to kill the open source movement?" he asks. "The answer is no - in fact, we`re working closer with open source vendors than we ever have before. We are working to ensure their solutions can run on Microsoft technology and that interoperability between our respective solutions exists."

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