Skeptical IT Execs Poke at the Tender Underbelly of Open Source

Reporter's Notebook: A panel of IT execs faces off with startups at the Open Source Business Conference to discuss their wares with respect to third-party certifications, proprietary lock-in and more.

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.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick 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.

/zimages/3/28571.gifRed 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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