Open-Source Options Need to Be Opened Up

Open-source software allows a great deal of flexibility and configurability, and can help organizations avoid vendor lock-in, but it has to be the right open-source software. Open-source enterprise applications such as Zimbra that provide hosted, on-premises and independent options are the most attractive.

I recently pointed out that while Google's excellent messaging and calendar services are available at low or no cost, Microsoft's Exchange is, in some significant ways, more free than Gmail.

That's because while Gmail is an excellent application, it's shadowed somewhat by the specter of lock-in: the friction that stops you from moving from something that's not working to something that would work better. Specifically, you can't adopt Google's Apps without yourself becoming a ward of Google's data centers.

Sure, Google offers ample means of backing up or migrating away your data, and e-mail, with its mature protocols and formats, is particularly migration-friendly. However, even assuming perfect data migration, the fact that you can't fire your ops provider and take the application itself with you is a definite friction point.

Organizations develop processes around particular application features, and moving between applications involves at least retraining, and at most redesigning or scrapping some of these processes and habits.

In contrast, Microsoft's Exchange offers-in addition to all the data portability to which e-mail is heir-a breadth of ops provider options that Google can't match.

Not surprisingly, I was taken to task for the "free as in Exchange" remark that closed my column by an eWEEK reader who rightly pointed out that Microsoft's Exchange invites plenty of lock-in, particularly on the OS and processor architecture levels.

I must confess that I chose Exchange as my paragon of freedom and flexibility mostly for rhetorical value-I think the comparison highlights well the competitive challenge faced by Google in the enterprise space. Strictly speaking, there are messaging and calendar options much more deserving of the mantle of freedom.

The reader who responded to my column suggested IBM Lotus Domino as a less lock-in-prone alternative to Exchange. Domino does run on a broader range of platforms than does Exchange, but I was thinking more along the lines of Yahoo's Zimbra Collaboration Suite.

Like Exchange and Domino, Zimbra may be deployed and run, with support, in on-premises or hosted flavors. And, like Domino, Zimbra runs on multiple server platforms. Unlike Exchange or Domino, Zimbra is open-source software, which means that organizations can use, modify and redistribute the server without requiring any relationship with Yahoo.

Another vendor of open-source enterprise software that's taking a similar tack is SugarCRM, which offers access to its wares in on-premises and free, community-supported scenarios, as well as in a Sugar-hosted version running atop the company's Sugar Open Cloud.

Open source can serve as an excellent escape valve for the pressure of vendor lock-in because it leaves organizations free to pack up the application and walk away from vendor relationships that aren't working-regardless of where in the stack those vendors are situated.

What's more, companies that choose open source leave themselves the option of fixing or extending the functionality of the applications they depend on.

Of course, the "open-source" label alone doesn't guarantee suitability-you have to ensure that the open-source application in question can suit your needs. What's more, the fact that open-source applications enable companies to get under the hood and make modifications doesn't mean they'll wish to seize this opportunity.

For these reasons, I think that some of the most attractive open-source enterprise applications are those arranged like Zimbra, with hosted subscription, on-premises and no-strings-attached (or independent, if you prefer) options.

We take it for granted that the best enterprise applications will enable our data to flow into other applications. Considering the way that virtualization and cloud computing are delivering organizations more choices than ever in the platforms that serve our workloads, it's fair that we begin to extend our portability expectations beyond data to include the applications themselves.

Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at [email protected].