LeapFrog Jumps into Open
Source"> Leapfrog Enterprises, maker of childrens learning toys and electronics, is in the process of ramping up its Internet operations to serve a new series of Web-aware educational products. At the same time, the companys best-of-breed infrastructure planning strategies are leading the company in the direction of open-source software. Until the beginning of this year, LeapFrog.com had been focused primarily on product information and e-commerce. During the next 18 months, LeapFrog is set to roll out a site redesign and a series of new Web-based properties. According to Eugene Ciurana, LeapFrogs director of systems infrastructure, the companys plans for those initiatives "rely very heavily on open source for a lot of the infrastructure." For one thing, the company is shifting from hosting the bulk of its Web sites in a third-party ASP model to bringing its new Web properties into LeapFrogs own data centers on a platform of RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) and the Apache Tomcat Application Server.Although selecting open-source components is sometimes not the obvious option or the most heavily trodden path, LeapFrog, based in Emeryville, Calif., finds that its often the best route. But, Ciurana said, the ultimate choicebe it open source or a proprietary applicationdepends on whats best for the project at hand and best for the company overall. "We have what we call the best-of-breed philosophy for development," Ciurana said. "Normally, larger companies tend to be very safe about going for the tried and true, but the teams we work with at LeapFrog, were more into, Tried and true is good, if it helps me deliver. We are not closed to looking at open source or other newer technologies if there is enough critical mass and enough momentum behind them to make us feel comfortable that theyll be around for a while." The Wicket and the Fly When it came to building the presentation infrastructure for the first of LeapFrogs new Web-aware products, the Fly Fusion Pentop Computer, the firms best-of-breed calculus came down on the side of open source. Describing the Fly Fusion, which LeapFrog began shipping in July, Ciurana said, "Basically, its a pen that has a computer on it that recognizes your handwriting. It has a number of applications, but the device is also Internet-enabled, using your PC as a gateway to get onto the Internet." As a result, and in contrast to the 2005 version of LeapFrogs Fly pentop, "you can get new content on the pen, you can get applications on the pen, and so on, directly from the Internet without having to buy a cartridge," Ciurana said. The PC application for the Fly Fusion (which, despite LeapFrogs embrace of open-source software on the back end, runs only on Windows) works with the pentop similar to the way in which Apples iTunes works with its iPod music players: The application connects users to sites viewable only through the application. The cornerstone for the content delivery portion of the Web-based store is Wicket, an open-source Java Web application framework that dates back to 2004 and that recently graduated from Apache incubator status to become a full-fledged Apache Foundation project. For Ciurana and his team, Wicket perfectly fits the best-of-breed definition. "Its one of those technologies that really works," Ciurana said. "If you look at other Java technologies, open source or commercial for Web sites, theres this mishmash of XML configuration files, plus Web pages, plus some tagging, and it gets really messy." In contrast, Ciurana continued, "Wicket allows you to just have one model that is Java-based, and it requires very little configuration to coordinate with what the Web browser is doingWicket does all that implicitly for you. Thats pretty important because what that translates into is time to market." For LeapFrog, Wickets time-to-market advantage proved considerable. "We were able to ship a Java Web site project in about 90 days," Ciurana said. "If we had used any other technology for the same type of deliverable, it probably wouldve taken us six months instead of three months to do the same thing. Thats a good example for us of how something open source with a rich community with enough credibility from the technical folks working on it also can help us deliver something really fast." Coupling the open and closed Of course, with a best-of-breed strategy such as the one LeapFrog pursues, the open-source option doesnt always rise to the top. In the case of the CMS (content management system) that LeapFrog selected for its Web initiative, the company evaluated a handful of open-source options, including Alfresco and Magnolia, alongside a set of proprietary applications. LeapFrog required that its CMS option be Java-based to take advantage of its teams Java development expertise to smooth implementation. Ciurana and his team were also looking for a CMS option that complied with the Java Content Repository standard. Magnolia and Alfresco fit the bill by those measures but fell short in other areas. For example, during LeapFrogs evaluation of Magnolia, Ciurana and his team encountered issues integrating the CMS with LeapFrogs commercial database. And, with Alfresco, Ciuranas team concluded that the integration tasks required to implement the software would prove too extensive. Page 2: LeapFrog Jumps into Open Source
"The company has worked with open source since way before I came in, but I also believe that its only recently, in the last six months or so, that the adoption of open-source applications for main line-of-business applications has been more apparent," said Ciurana. "By the end of the year, pretty much everything youll see on the Internet from LeapFrog U.S. will ... work with open-source software in one way or another."