LeapFrog Jumps into Open
Source”> Leapfrog Enterprises, maker of childrens learning toys and electronics, is in the process of ramping up its Internet operations to serve a new series of Web-aware educational products. At the same time, the companys best-of-breed infrastructure planning strategies are leading the company in the direction of open-source software.
Until the beginning of this year, LeapFrog.com had been focused primarily on product information and e-commerce. During the next 18 months, LeapFrog is set to roll out a site redesign and a series of new Web-based properties. According to Eugene Ciurana, LeapFrogs director of systems infrastructure, the companys plans for those initiatives “rely very heavily on open source for a lot of the infrastructure.”
For one thing, the company is shifting from hosting the bulk of its Web sites in a third-party ASP model to bringing its new Web properties into LeapFrogs own data centers on a platform of RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) and the Apache Tomcat Application Server.
“The company has worked with open source since way before I came in, but I also believe that its only recently, in the last six months or so, that the adoption of open-source applications for main line-of-business applications has been more apparent,” said Ciurana. “By the end of the year, pretty much everything youll see on the Internet from LeapFrog U.S. will … work with open-source software in one way or another.”
Although selecting open-source components is sometimes not the obvious option or the most heavily trodden path, LeapFrog, based in Emeryville, Calif., finds that its often the best route. But, Ciurana said, the ultimate choice—be it open source or a proprietary application—depends on whats best for the project at hand and best for the company overall.
“We have what we call the best-of-breed philosophy for development,” Ciurana said. “Normally, larger companies tend to be very safe about going for the tried and true, but the teams we work with at LeapFrog, were more into, Tried and true is good, if it helps me deliver. We are not closed to looking at open source or other newer technologies if there is enough critical mass and enough momentum behind them to make us feel comfortable that theyll be around for a while.”
The Wicket and the Fly
When it came to building the presentation infrastructure for the first of LeapFrogs new Web-aware products, the Fly Fusion Pentop Computer, the firms best-of-breed calculus came down on the side of open source.
Describing the Fly Fusion, which LeapFrog began shipping in July, Ciurana said, “Basically, its a pen that has a computer on it that recognizes your handwriting. It has a number of applications, but the device is also Internet-enabled, using your PC as a gateway to get onto the Internet.”
As a result, and in contrast to the 2005 version of LeapFrogs Fly pentop, “you can get new content on the pen, you can get applications on the pen, and so on, directly from the Internet without having to buy a cartridge,” Ciurana said.
The PC application for the Fly Fusion (which, despite LeapFrogs embrace of open-source software on the back end, runs only on Windows) works with the pentop similar to the way in which Apples iTunes works with its iPod music players: The application connects users to sites viewable only through the application.
The cornerstone for the content delivery portion of the Web-based store is Wicket, an open-source Java Web application framework that dates back to 2004 and that recently graduated from Apache incubator status to become a full-fledged Apache Foundation project.
For Ciurana and his team, Wicket perfectly fits the best-of-breed definition. “Its one of those technologies that really works,” Ciurana said. “If you look at other Java technologies, open source or commercial for Web sites, theres this mishmash of XML configuration files, plus Web pages, plus some tagging, and it gets really messy.”
In contrast, Ciurana continued, “Wicket allows you to just have one model that is Java-based, and it requires very little configuration to coordinate with what the Web browser is doing—Wicket does all that implicitly for you. Thats pretty important because what that translates into is time to market.”
For LeapFrog, Wickets time-to-market advantage proved considerable. “We were able to ship a Java Web site project in about 90 days,” Ciurana said. “If we had used any other technology for the same type of deliverable, it probably wouldve taken us six months instead of three months to do the same thing. Thats a good example for us of how something open source with a rich community with enough credibility from the technical folks working on it also can help us deliver something really fast.”
Coupling the open and closed
Of course, with a best-of-breed strategy such as the one LeapFrog pursues, the open-source option doesnt always rise to the top. In the case of the CMS (content management system) that LeapFrog selected for its Web initiative, the company evaluated a handful of open-source options, including Alfresco and Magnolia, alongside a set of proprietary applications.
LeapFrog required that its CMS option be Java-based to take advantage of its teams Java development expertise to smooth implementation. Ciurana and his team were also looking for a CMS option that complied with the Java Content Repository standard.
Magnolia and Alfresco fit the bill by those measures but fell short in other areas. For example, during LeapFrogs evaluation of Magnolia, Ciurana and his team encountered issues integrating the CMS with LeapFrogs commercial database. And, with Alfresco, Ciuranas team concluded that the integration tasks required to implement the software would prove too extensive.
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Based on LeapFrogs requirements, one of the proprietary contenders emerged as the best tool for the task at hand. (Ciurana declined to name the chosen application.) Despite the closed-source nature of LeapFrogs selection, however, openness remained a priority.
“The commercial application was clearly better than the others,” Ciurana said. “All that we were concerned about was that the interfaces between the commercial software and any other portion of the [infrastructure] did not become proprietary—did not become a way for the vendor to lock us into something we would not like to have there in the long term.”
To ensure that the proprietary CMS would play well with the rest of LeapFrogs infrastructure, Ciurana and his team turned to another open-source project: the Mule ESB (Enterprise Service Bus).
“Mule is a piece of software that lets you take different systems and different services and use them as they exist already on the corporate network or on the real-world networks, without you having to do a lot of point-to-point customization,” Ciurana explained. “Normally, if you need two systems to talk to each other, you end up having to write a lot of custom code or a custom transport. Mule lets you interconnect these systems with very, very little fuss.”
As with Wicket, one of the primary benefits of adopting Mule at LeapFrog is reducing time to market. “If integrating two systems would normally take a month, between coding and testing and so on, the same two systems can be interconnected with Mule in less than a week because youre not changing the way the systems work,” Ciurana said. “You only add a layer of communication between the two—thats the only thing that needs to be developed and tested and otherwise ironed out.”
In selecting a CMS, the ability of the application to talk to Mule—and, by extension, to Wicket, to the open-source Apache Lucene search engine and to LeapFrogs other infrastructure components—was paramount.
“If for whatever reason a system doesnt work,” Ciurana said, “we can completely remove it, put something else in instead, and just worry about doing the transformations and the interfaces between Mule and that new system without having to change all the other stuff around.”
Committing to open source
While open-source and proprietary software are judged by the same standards at LeapFrog, the company recognizes that open-source projects present unique challenges, as well as unique opportunities to help address these challenges.
For instance, for Ciurana and his team at LeapFrog to feel confident about committing to an open-source software component, the project under consideration must enjoy a vital development and services ecosystem. “At LeapFrog, we need to have a support organization and level of indemnification associated with the software,” said Ciurana.
Fortunately, as Ciurana has learned through his experiences in the Mule community, its possible for companies to help vitalize the open-source projects on which they depend through their own participation.
“In the process of learning about Mule, I became involved with the community,” Ciurana said. “I host one of the ESB channels in the IRC [Internet Relay Chat] networks; Ive spoken at several conferences on ESBs in general, and on Mule in particular, in the last year. By creating awareness of it, we invite more people to participate in the project, and that participation in turn creates more synergy and more participation from others and better adoption.”
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Participation in the open-source community has also turned out to be a good recruiting tool.
“We have a lot of interaction with the community, and LeapFrog sees it not only as good for overall karma but also as an excellent recruiting tool,” Ciurana said. “If I go to a conference and share the kinds of things that were doing, people on the outside can appreciate the kinds of things that were doing and they can see, cool, LeapFrog must be a cool place to work. That creates more synergy, and maybe if when were recruiting someone in particular, or if the friend of a friend is looking for a job and wants to do open-source stuff, they may end up at our doorstep and know theyll be welcome. Several of the consultants that we have working with us right now are people whom I originally met on IRC.”
Desktop use and future projects
Open-source software hasnt penetrated the general desktop space at LeapFrog as broadly as it has the server room. “The client space is mostly Windows—its very corporate,” Ciurana said.
The situation is different, however, on LeapFrogs Web development team. As Ciurana explained, “In terms of development for all the Web properties, I would say that a good 85 or 90 percent of it is happening under Linux. The part thats not happening under Linux is happening under [Macintosh] OS X. Both the contractors and the guys who are working from within my team at LeapFrog, were all Unix-like. We basically only go to Windows when we need to test or develop something that interacts with the front end, which for us is very minimal.”
However, those using Linux and Unix systems must be issued Windows machines as well. “We need the Windows software basically because of [Microsoft] Exchange [Server] and Outlook,” Ciurana said. “As long as those things are there and there is no decent way of connecting them from Linux, its going to be very hard to move people from it.” Right now, LeapFrog is running RHEL on its production servers, but the company is investigating Canonicals Ubuntu and Sun Microsystems Solaris as potential alternatives.
“Red Hat is kind of brittle, kind of hard to deal with, and were finding a lot of really cool features in Ubuntu that I think would help with overall system administration,” Ciurana said. He added, however, that any such change would be subject to a fuller evaluation in cooperation with LeapFrogs IT infrastructure team.
Ciuranas interest in Solaris as an alternative to RHEL is rooted in his testing experiences while he was an enterprise architect at Walmart.com. “Were hoping to become very, very, very successful,” Ciurana explained. “Solaris in general is still more stable, and it has a more predictable curve under heavy load than Linux does.”
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