Open Source Gets IT Scrutiny

By Anne Chen  |  Posted 2002-07-08

Open Source Gets IT Scrutiny

Once smuggled through back doors into the stolid world of corporate computing, open-source software is now beginning to get the full red carpet treatment at enterprises such as Visa International Inc. and Inc.

As open-source platforms including the Apache Web server and the Linux operating system make their way through the front doors of enterprises, however, theyre increasingly being put through the same rigorous evaluation methods that corporations have used for years to select technology standards from among proprietary options. This means open-source software must pass muster in terms of scalability, reliability and security. And organizations are paying particular attention to support availability and total cost of ownership when evaluating open-source software (see story, "Six Questions to Ask About Open Source").

"We definitely look at open source more critically," said Jack Cate, senior systems administrator at automotive Web site, in Santa Monica, Calif. started out using Apache and has since increased the number of open-source tools it uses.

"Well put out feelers to other cohorts in the industry to get a feel for what software theyre using, what theyre doing with it and whether the program is well-regarded in the open-source community," Cate said. "Were looking for software that holds up like Apache, which we consider to be the Swiss Army knife of the industry."

The need to cut software licensing costs and the backing of Linux from major players in the industry are two factors driving open-source softwares appearance in large-enterprise computing environments, experts say. Continuing to push the trend along is the steady appearance of more enterprise applications running on Linux-based open-source operating systems, as well as the popularity of the Apache Web server, which in May ran on 56 percent of all Web servers on the Internet, according to Web survey company Netcraft Ltd., of Bath, England.

While enterprises arent ripping out proprietary applications to run open-source software, they are increasingly considering open source as an option when bringing in new software or upgrading versions.

Linux on Mainframes

Linux on Mainframes

At Visa International in San Francisco, for example, Inder Singh, global chief technology officer, is looking at the possibility of using Linux for an upgrade of Visas mainframe-based distributed processing environment, which powers the companys transaction authorization and settlement systems. Visa currently uses the IBM mainframe environment for those particular applications. In its examination of the open-source operating system, Visa is comparing Linuxs robustness and reliability against proprietary software such as Sun Microsystems Inc.s Solaris and Hewlett-Packard Co.s HP-UX.

Visa is now conducting an analysis of Linux running on mainframe hardware, looking at total cost of ownership for the platform, among other issues. But the main reason Linux is even considered a viable candidate at Visa is because of its backing by IBM. Singh said Linux would not have been considered if IBM had not started offering support for the operating system in its mainframe environment.

"With any piece of software, we want to ensure that there are dedicated resources to maintaining and enhancing a product, and that is even more important with open-source software," Singh said. "With proprietary software, youre guaranteed a level of support, a level of trust that the systems youre running can be maintained. IBM backing Linux means that trust factor exists for us."

While the backing of a large vendor is important, participation of members from the open-source community in supporting a given platform is key, IT managers say. Edmunds Cate said that before standardizing on any open-source product, he always looks to see how much documentation is available, whether a good FAQ for it exists and whether there is an active newsgroup on Usenet dedicated to a particular piece of open-source soft-ware. Cate, who uses Apache 1.3.26 to power his Web servers, also looks at the frequency of the releases for a given open-source platform and how often bugs are fixed.

"How long a product has been in the market and whether or not theres user acceptance is extremely important to us," Cate said. "A large degree of our enterprise relies on Apache and to some degree on open source. Its successful because we deploy software we know will be supported by the community."

Above the Radar

Above the Radar

Certainly, the role open-source software plays at has changed dramatically over the years. Six years ago, Apache was deployed under the management radar by the IT department. Today, Cate said, executives at the company assume open-source products and tools have been considered alongside proprietary products. In addition to Apache, the company uses open-source products such as Webalizer for Web statistics and analysis, IP Audit for internal traffic monitoring and reporting, and Snort for intrusion detection. While Oracle Corp.s Oracle is used as the companys primary database, Cate also has brought in a MySQL database, which is used to hold records from Edmunds Web site. The database currently manages 500,000 records.

Cate acknowledged that much of the success platforms such as MySQL and Apache have had at Edmunds has to do with the time and resources the company has dedicated to the open-source community.

Not all organizations are up to the level of care and feeding that open-source software requires, however. At Sutter Health, in Modesto, Calif., Nelson Ramos, vice president and CIO, said that while the quality of more recent open-source products cant be ignored, he lacks the time, staff and support infrastructure to thoroughly evaluate them.

"I have to rely, or some say compromise, on the consistency offered by commercially mainstream products," said Ramos, also a member of eWeeks Corporate Partner advisory board. "Although open source appears to be free, we still have reservations about its ability to meet our needs and actually lower our costs."

Indeed, experts stress, in addition to scrutinizing industry support for open-source products, IT managers need to perform their own total-cost-of-ownership evaluations—based on pilot tests—and not rely on generic, published reports. While open-source software may seem less expensive to deploy because of its low or nonexistent license fees, IT managers often forget to include the cost of retraining support staff and users, third-party support and services, and licensing fees from distribution vendors such as Red Hat Inc. and SuSE Linux AG.

"Although open source can save you money, you rarely save as much as you think you will," said Chad Robinson, an analyst at research company Robert Frances Group, in Westport, Conn. "Open-source software is definitely worth pursuing, but you have to make sure its worth the effort. In the end, only companies with realistic expectations of the cost savings will truly reap the benefits."

Senior Writer Anne Chen can be reached at

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