News Analysis: The topic of open-source software has been steeped in debate since the development and licensing took root in the 1980s and picked up steam with the proliferation of the Internet in the decade that followed.
The topic of open-source software has been steeped in debate
since the development and licensing took root in the 1980s and picked up steam
with the proliferation of the Internet in the decade that followed. As open-source
tools and components began to grow more familiar among developers, enterprises
approached open-source cautiously, with an eye toward questions of suitability,
scalability and support.
However, the emergence and rapid scale-out of open-source-powered
startups highlighted the unique potential of these community-developed
components. As Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, puts it,
"could Google or Amazon be what they are if they were built on Windows and .NET?
They wouldn't have been able to buy and track licenses as fast as they could
roll out servers."
A parade of successful open-source initiatives, coupled with
year after year of tighter budgets, and OSS (open-source software) is
entrenched in the enterprise. In a keynote he delivered at Linuxcon 2010 in
Boston, Jeffrey Hammond of Forrester Research asserted that when it comes to
enterprise IT adoption, open source has "crossed the chasm," pointing to the
entrenched position and expanding embrace of open source among enterprise
developers and decision makers alike, as indicated in a series of surveys carried
out in 2008 and 2009. (See Hammond's keynote slides here
Today, questions around open-source adoption in enterprise
IT continue, but rather than asking if or when, organizations are increasingly
focusing on how. Using OSS as components of enterprise applications is in some
ways a game changer, but in some ways it's not. Organizations still need to
follow software development best practices, but success with open-source
software comes with its own wrinkles, such as finding the right components,
interacting positively with the community and understanding and navigating
While the free availability of open-source components can
work to catch the attention of developers and organizations, the value of any
component, whether open source or not, boils down to much more than acquisition
cost. Jim Zemlin of the Linux Foundation said the "-hey-this-is-great-because-it's-free'
story is 10 years old. We've moved on to more sophisticated questions. Companies
now want to know which projects are good, where can they get them, how are they
best implemented, where can they find the best developer talent to work with
OSS, and how can they contribute and improve it."
The process of finding the right OSS project typically
begins with a developer searching online for a code component that will meet a
specific need. The process of searching for code, compiling a list of projects,
evaluating the projects and their associated communities, and downloading and
testing the code can be an arduous task because code (and different versions of
it) can be scattered across the globe.
One resource that can make this process easier is the Website
Ohloh.net, which houses a comprehensive database of 300,000 OSS projects. Each
project has complete information regarding licensing, cryptography, security
and the vitality of the community. Measuring the vitality is important because
it won't help your developers very much if they have to start maintaining
someone else's dead code. Insight into the sustainability of the project can be
found in factors such as the number of committers, the names and histories of
each committer, the number of contributors and their experience, plus the
growth in the number of community members and the frequency of builds.
The site, which was recently acquired by Black Duck
Software, is set to merge with Black Duck's existing Koders.com site to provide
all the information a developer needs to make an informed decision about
open-source components. In the words of Black Duck President and CEO Tim
Yeaton, the combined site will have the "richest metadata aggregated in one
place that developers can use to understand each project."
Understanding the community clustered around a particular
project is key, because it's from this group of users and contributors that
open-source projects draw their strength. As a consultant, I've always asked my
clients if they want to put all their eggs in one basket and be at the mercy of
a single vendor for operating system, application and custom application
licensing, support and updates. While a broad-based community can't replace the
professional support organizations maintained by enterprise-oriented software
vendors, community resources can provide a powerful complement. What's more,
the most popular open-source projects-the
components of the LAMP stack, for instance-tend
to boast multiple commercial providers alongside considerable community