Community-Source Development Appeals in Tough Times

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2009-02-24

Community-Source Development Appeals in Tough Times

The concept of community-source development is catching on with enterprise organizations, both inside and outside of corporate and organizational walls for its ability to cut costs, increase collaboration and avoid vendor lock-in.

Community source is a hybrid development model that blends elements of directed development-in the classic sense of an organization employing staff and resources to work on a project-and the openness of traditional open source such as Apache, according to Brad Wheeler, vice president for information technology, CIO and professor of information systems at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business.

The Gartner market research firm claims some responsibility for coining the term "community source." In one of the company's reports, Gartner analyst Brian Prentice said community source occurs "when users decide to band together to create their own open-source solutions without the participation of any external vendor. It's an emerging phenomenon, particularly in the public sector."

Brian Behlendorf, a founding member of the Apache Software Foundation and prominent open-source software community leader, said, "Community source is where you identify a common need across a group of entities, and you put those entities together as peers to drive development, and they all go off and use the product. It's about forging an open-source development community out of a latent set of interests."

Cost-Cutting Community


Cost-Cutting Community

That is exactly the goal of the Collaborative Software Initiative, or CSI, which brings together like-minded companies to build software applications at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods. CSI officials said the company introduces a market-changing process that applies open-source methodologies to building collaboratively developed software.

Stuart Cohen, CEO of CSI, believes in the power of collaboration. "We collaborate with our customers in every step of the application life cycle, from initial vision through planning and design to development and maintenance," he said. "Our belief is the power of collaboration can reduce cost, mitigate risk, speed development and infuse new ideas to solve complex issues."

Behlendorf, who serves as an adviser to CSI, said he is enthusiastic about the company "because I saw open-source software going beyond things like the database and tools to reach this critical point where you can bring different companies with different agendas together to focus on the more immediate need of software development and community. This is how open-source software gets built and how it becomes a united project."

Behlendorf said he does not see any other company doing "a hybrid of a services company and a product company" and basing it on open source and collaborative development. "IBM comes closest," he said.

CSI is working to advance community sourcing as an application development model, according to Cohen. He said the idea for the company came to him about two and a half to three years ago when he was the CEO of OSDL (Open Source Development Labs), which later merged with the Free Standards Group to form the Linux Foundation.

 "A lot of people were asking us to help them build community development strategies," Cohen said. "And we spun out of OSDL to focus on business-to-business development."

Describing the company, Gartner's Prentice said, "An amalgam of technical, project management and open-source skills sets, CSI's objective is to act as a bonding agent between organizations that share common business challenges-usually within a single industry."

Added Prentice: "What CSI does is to broker a relationship between the affected organizations, not including vendors, with the intent of project managing a coordinated development effort between them. This reduces the costs of bespoke development from each participating member by distributing it amongst them."

However, the real impact of CSI's efforts lies in the fact that CSI manages the process of covering all the resulting work under an open-source license agreement, Prentice said. This is a key point not lost on Cohen, who tapped Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia University and founder of the Software Freedom Law Center, as an adviser to CSI, particularly on issues of licensing.

Meanwhile, CSI has helped to introduce community-source development into various industries, including the financial services market, health care, energy and utilities, and government, Cohen said.

Demonstrating the capabilities of the collaborative model in the area of public health, CSI built TriSano, which is an open-source, citizen-focused surveillance and outbreak management system for infectious disease, environmental hazards and bioterrorism attacks. The system enables local, state and federal entities to gather information through interactions with citizens and helps public health officials better serve citizens, according to CSI officials.

To create TriSano, CSI launched a collaborative project with subject matter experts such as doctors, nurses, epidemiologists and others working together with the company's program manager and development experts to create a next-generation disease surveillance and outbreak management application.

"TriSano addresses an urgent need of public health departments at the local, state and federal levels to fight the spread of infectious disease," said Dr. Robert Rolfs, MD, an epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health. "By hosting the TriSano open-source project, the Collaborative Software Initiative is building an open-source community that has a shared interest in improving citizens' health by collecting and managing data to better address infectious disease outbreaks and meet CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] compliance requirements."

Kelly Usselman, the TriSano public health community manager, said, "In current economic times, the ability to collaborate and share can be of great value to those that participate."

In an effort to share the costs of software development and decrease overall risk, state agencies are beginning to reach out beyond their borders to join with their counterparts in other states, according to Rick Howard, CIO of the Oregon Department of Human Services.

"By pooling their intellectual capital and financial resources, these states are forming partnerships with independent organizations that offer the necessary technical expertise to quickly develop open-source software solutions that adhere to the standards necessary within the framework of a service-oriented architecture," Howard said.

The Community Within


The Community Within

The community-source concept also is gaining favor within major corporations for their own internal use.

Indeed, IBM has been employing community-source principles for some years now with positive results. IBM officials said its community-source efforts have led to improvements in development time of as much as 30 percent for some projects.

IBM officials said community source provides an infrastructure for nurturing componentization and facilitating reuse of those components.

There has been steady growth in projects and members since the inception of community source at IBM in 2002, although the efforts did not launch in earnest until a couple of years later. IBM officials said reuse metrics of high-value projects demonstrate that the value gained far outweighs the cost burden to facilitate them. And there has been a strong interest by IBM's customers wanting to re-create a similar environment, according to company officials.

IBM has used the community-source model to bring together developers from across the company's different brands and geographic locations to contribute to the process and build code.

Sue McKinney, vice president of development transformation in IBM Software Group, said the company saw the momentum around open-source software some years ago. "We had this challenge of integrating several acquisitions, and we had all kinds of tools and assets and nobody was reusing them," she said. "We had to eliminate inefficiency, and we were under pressure. So we wanted to get engineers to contribute assets they were working on."

IBM called on Julie King, an IBM distinguished engineer, to focus on the problem and to help bring some governance to the process. King's team developed a lightweight, Web-based application to help IBM's developers more easily access all the assets available to them as part of the community-source effort.

There are currently more than 31,000 developers using the IBM community-source assets, a number that is growing 30 percent annually, McKinney said. In addition, there are more than 1,400 projects in IBM's community-source program, and that number is growing 32 percent each year. There also are more than 2,400 instances of direct reuse of components in community source. And, of the 25 most reused components in IBM Software Group, more than 75 percent are part of the community-source program.

IBM's King said the community-source governance application is a portal solution based on IBM's RAM (Rational Asset Manager).

"We have added more Web 2.0 and social networking parts to the system to allow people to interact more, and to do things like judge and rate components," King said. "We tried to make it a more usable and community-centric site."

King said her group has also worked to make it easier to initiate projects. "This is a precursor to us doing more asset reuse," she said. "We want to use RAM to reuse other stuff, not just software code and components, but things like sales collateral, automation scripts, etc. We're saving the corporation hundreds of millions of dollars."


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