Skeptical IT Execs Poke at the Tender Underbelly of Open Source

By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2005-11-01

Skeptical IT Execs Poke at the Tender Underbelly of Open Source

NEWTON, MASS.—They lined up onstage to float their 1-minute elevator pitches, these sellers of open-source dreams: XenSource Inc. with virtualization software, ActiveGrid with its grid application server, EnterpriseDB with its PostgreSQL-based database.

Its not that the pitches didnt zero in on enterprise pain points.

"We are looking for that very technology," said Rick Carey, vice president in the office of the CIO at Fannie Mae Foundation, after XenSource Chief Technology Officer Moshe Bar pitched the ability to split one-to-one dependencies between operating systems and underlying hardware.

"The question is, should you be selling it to me?" Carey said.

Whats the problem? Its manifold, Carey said. "A few years ago, there was a plethora of database accelerators [on the market]. I said sell it to Oracle [Corp.]. First, [such technology] breaks third-party certifications. Second, when you sell your business—which you will—and it breaks, Im stuck with it."

Careys sticking points were on a laundry list presented to open-source software vendors by a panel of five IT execs at the Open Source Business Conference here on Tuesday.

Click here to read why a Sun exec says that business benefits from open code.

While the list went on to include training issues, ecosystem shallowness, proprietary technology lock-in, lack of virtualization flexibility on the storage level and much more, moderator Dave Power pointed out that at least nobodys questioning the open-source part anymore.

"[We listened] to three companies offering open-source solutions addressing real needs in some of your enterprises, if not all of them," said Power, of Fidelity Ventures. "But we didnt hear about open source as being a problem."

But while open source is obviously here to stay in the enterprise, merely sticking the open-source modifier in front of the name of any form of technology clearly doesnt impress the people who buy this stuff.

"You can talk about moving applications around, but if you dont have the same flexibility [with storage], were not going to squeeze as much value as we can" out of a virtualization product like XenSources, Carey said. When storage goes virtual, its another story. "Then Im a buyer, Im a big buyer," he said.

For his part, Charles Brenner, senior vice president of Fidelity Investments Center for Applied Technology, said Fidelity has already been virtualizing for a long time as it pushes to reduce its number of boxes. What makes him suspicious of XenSource and its ilk, he said, is the potential for one applications failure to have a domino effect on a stack of virtualized applications, bringing them all tumbling down.

"One bad apple spoiling the whole barrel is less likely to happen if youre not piling applications on top of each other: if youre working at the operating system level," he said. "Its a heart transplant. You want that from a reputable [vendor]."

Brenners fears werent unique to Fidelity; they were echoed by Maurizio Ferconi, managing director of financial engineering at Putnam Investments. "[Virtualization] is good as long as its isolated, with no leakage," he said.

XenSources Bar defended Xen, saying that it has the advantage of being "probably the most secure, the most separating technology out there. Two machines are on the same [server] and dont even know" that theyre not the only applications on the server, he said.

Jin Chun, vice president and chief applications architect for Global Link at State Street Corp., said State Street is looking at virtualization "very, very seriously."

"We tended to overbuy on hardware and tend to have hardware were underutilizing," he said. State Street has a particularly nasty headache when it comes time to move applications and servers from one environment to another, between quality assurance and production and testing, for example.

Red Hat is pushing to get Xen virtualization technology included in the Linux kernel as quickly as possible. Click here to read more.

But while virtualization sounds like a good way to cure that headache, theres no guarantee that all of State Streets hardware will be integrated with something like XenSource.

Such issues—third-party certifications, hardware integration and storage virtualization—are all serious ones, Bar said. The best he could give the panel, though, was that the startup is working on them.

For its part, ActiveGrid, with its grid application server pitch, raised the specter of lock-in.

"One of the things we look for if were adopting open-source technology is, What happens if it dies?" Fidelitys Brenner said. "Thats always a possibility. I would look at whats the output of the application builder. Is it something I could pick up and rebuild by hand if I needed to, or substitute [on the front end], or am I going to be locked into some species thats not likely to survive?"

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The IT execs were also concerned about ActiveGrids ability to survive in an already commoditized area.

"Youre adding yourself into a new platform, as an application server," Fannie Maes Carey said.

"We went through that already. I would see if youre around in another two years. Its a weird position to be in, in a contracting market. Are you going to be bought out? Ive already lived through the PeopleSoft/Oracle [fiasco]. Do I want to do that again?"

ActiveGrid CEO and founder Peter Yared responded to the lock-in question by saying that the company has made an active effort to stay as standard as possible, with the result being a set of "very, very standard XML files" that encapsulates any added code into WYSDL.

"We have [made] a strong effort to make it as standard as possible," he said.

EnterpriseDB co-founder and CEO Andy Astor pleased the panel not only with the databases ability to easily drop in and work with Oracle databases, but the flip side of that: the ability to drop out again "if the thing doesnt work," Brenner said.

The problem, Brenner said, is that the open-source MySQL database already has a strong community—it is, after all, the M in the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP/Python/Perl) stack, so what hope does EnterpriseDB have of pushing it aside?

"We all know about LAMP," he said. "You cant pronounce LAEP. At least I dont know how to do it. … The LAMP stack has an awful lot of presence out there, and thats a [serious] thing to overcome."

Astor replied that LAMP was originally supposed to be just a suggestion of an open-source stack, as opposed to a law set in stone, but yes, it has become very accepted, which EnterpriseDB has to deal with.

A tougher thing for EnterpriseDB to overcome is the fact that enterprises already have plenty of databases.

"Weve got too many databases in our portfolio as it is," Carey said. "The business case to add another database to our portfolio would need to be pretty sound."

Carey also expressed worries about third-party certifications, which serve to justify paying more for expensive proprietary databases such as Oracle, making the justification for another database all the more dubious.

"We buy a lot of software, and what we get for the extra bucks is theyve done due diligence and gotten third-party certifications," he said. "For major [database] players, all the [applications] wed want running certify against one or two."

Astor countered by agreeing that if EnterpriseDB only saves enterprises some 20 percent when compared to Oracle licenses, its "frankly not that interesting on database costs."

But once you look at licensing costs on a curve, things get much more compelling, he said, with savings on eight-way boxes shooting up to 90 percent over Oracle.

Training was another sticking point with which EnterpriseDB had to grapple. Timothy Vaverchak, director of open-source development for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Information Technology Division, said his division would need assurance of a training mechanism to bring up database administrators who might be "more skeptical than some of the more progressive of DBAs," he said.

"It is a serious concern. Too many times weve heard from organizations Sure, just drop it in, and itll replace everything we have," he said. "But theres always something else going on there."

Such issues are "absolutely critical," Astor said. "As a new company, its absolutely critical. We consider our product GA, and customers are using it in the marketplace. Our next challenge is having an ecosystem that lets people like you say Gee, this company supports them, and we have a training class, and that gives people the confidence."

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