When eWeek Labs was getting ready to publish its 1999 review of the Linux 2.2 kernel, we struggled with the headline. Would “Linux: Enterprise-ready” be too strong?
We decided then that Linux was enterprise-ready, and open sources reach has grown in the years since. In fact, its not a question of whether open source should exist in the enterprise but a question of how much and where.
Carl Howe, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., in Cambridge, Mass., estimates that close to 75 percent of all companies have at least tried open source, with Web servers and server operating systems being the most widely deployed applications.
eWeek Labs West Coast Technical Director Timothy Dyck puts that percentage higher: When you figure in small utilities, he said, theres probably no company that hasnt used open source.
Howe noted that open source still often flies under the radar in enterprises—Linux running on a box under someones desk, for example—but that the economics for the open-source model are “undeniable” and that open-source software would displace 20 percent of licensing revenue by 2004.
In “Broaden Options, With Caution,” eWeek Labs analysts break the enterprise into meaningful chunks and recommend where and how open-source software could and should be used. From handheld operating systems to enterprise resource planning, the Labs compared the maturity, functionality, cost benefits and inherent risk of open source vs. traditional commercial applications. In “Open Source Gets IT Scrutiny,” Senior Writer Anne Chen examines two companies open-source evaluation processes.
Open source, loosely defined, is application source code that is modifiable, distributable and readable, making application development an evolutionary process by which software can be improved and tailored. Open-source software makes sense almost everywhere in the enterprise, although it currently works best in networking-related tasks. CLICK HERE
An accepted practice in the mainframe world and in the early days of Unix, the sharing of source code on the PC platform took hold because of two important events: the creation of the Free Software Foundations GNU General Public License and the decision by Linus Torvalds to use that license when he released the first version of the Linux kernel in September 1991.
Open-source software quietly moved into the enterprise, embraced by data center managers who were able to grasp the value of cheap, malleable software for running discrete servers. Linux and two server applications that had their greatest popularity on Linux—the Apache Web server and Samba—are the most popular open-source programs and have been used quite successfully on enterprise servers.
In the last couple of years, however, the movement has blossomed not only within enterprise IT departments but also at technology vendors up to and including IBM, Oracle Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Apple Computer Inc.
Microsoft Corp. is absent from this group, but many would say not conspicuously so, given its proprietary history. Microsoft has made some moves to share code but has done so contrary to major open-source tenets. “The key thing is that you cant use shared-source software from Microsoft for commercial purposes, a restriction also on any changes,” said Dyck. “Its really only useful for academic research and trouble-shooting.”
Cost—or reduction thereof—is probably the No. 1 reason most companies decide to use open-source software. Even if there is some cost associated with procuring an open-source application, long-term costs will likely be low because there are no licensing fees involved. Total cost of ownership will vary depending on the application and the level of in-house expertise a company has, however.
Open-source applications—especially in the server space—can save companies money because they are highly configurable, allowing organizations to use and manage only what they need, and because code can be reused.
Open source can also reduce the costs associated with application bugs.
For enterprise IT, fewer bugs—or at least a community more proactive about searching out and patching bugs—is highly desirable. A May National Institute of Standards and Technology study said that, nationally, the annual cost of an inadequate infrastructure for software testing is estimated to be $59.5 billion. Any means to knock down that number should be at least considered by enterprise IT managers.
Published source code can both help and hurt the security record of a product, said Dyck, but it is characteristic of security-conscious groups and projects to always release source code. “Thats how encryption code came to be accepted,” said Dyck, “and its even how Microsoft is seeking to ensure the security core of its proposed Palladium security project.”
However, the frequent updating inherent in the open-source model, whether for bugs or for feature tweaks and adds, is off-putting to some enterprise customers, especially in this resource-strapped economy.
When factoring this into the open source vs. traditional software decision, Forresters Howe said IT managers should remember that frequent updates are already an issue: “I think its important to recognize that its a big hurdle now because applications are all being constantly updated, with service packs and the like,” he said. “The fact that the open-source community has a process, an open process, for dealing with that addresses a need that a lot of organizations have.”
Another major open-source worry for enterprises is support. Many companies feel comfortable with—if not satisfied by—support they pay for.
However, some would argue that the support provided by the open-source community is better and is provided faster than support through traditional vendor help desks.
For the largest open-source projects, such as Apache and Linux, support is freely and widely available. At www.apache.org and www.linux.org, for example, information is as well-documented and laid out as it is at any major vendors site.
In fact, any organization considering an open-source application should look first at the applications community, making sure the pool of developers and users is large enough and organized enough to provide an even, readily available level of support.
However, its been eWeek Labs experience that even the smallest open-source projects can offer good support.
eWeek Labs Senior Analyst Cameron Sturdevant said he has signed up for help at many open-source sites and has found support to be generally satisfactory. “For OpenNMS, which falls into that subcategory of less well-known projects, I was surprised at the frequency and thoughtfulness with which questions were answered, as well as by the technical expertise available,” said Sturdevant.
Even the Mon system monitoring utility, championed by one person, Jim Trocki, is well-supported, said Sturdevant. “Even the small stuff is supported by the person whos the standard-bearer,” he said.
Generally speaking, the first place to look for help is the FAQ section of the projects Web site. The second line of support is the sites mailing list archive, usually rich with information. The third way to get help, and the most challenging, is to post a question to the mailing list itself.
While vendor help desks are (or at least should be) tolerant of even the simplest questions, the people on the other end of the mailing lists are sometimes, shall we say, disdainful of questions asked without a certain level of technical acumen.
eWeek Labs Dyck offers these tips to get your question seen and answered on mailing lists: “Demonstrate that youve done your homework—on a mailing list, you have to both describe your problem very accurately, provide as much supporting information as you can and ask your question in as interesting a way as you can think of.”
Barriers to Entry
Barriers to Entry
One of the sticking points for open source right now is that, in general, it doesnt run well on Windows. “This is part inertia, part politics and part expediency,” said Dyck.
“Some packages, like MySQL or OpenOffice, are known for their good Windows support, but that characteristic is unusual. IT staff could make many open-source applications more strategic if they ran on the operating system those organizations had installed,” said Dyck.
Another barrier to wider enterprise use of open source, especially on the desktop, is ease of use. Most open-source applications were not written with the average business user in mind. The cost companies would pay to train and then support their users on a desktop version of Linux, for example, could negate any savings in licensing costs.
Strides are being made in improving user interfaces so they are more familiar to the general business user. Recent examples are OpenOffice and the newest release of GNU Network Object Model Environment.
As these issues get ironed out, eWeek Labs and other analysts expect that open source will proliferate.
“This is the period where I think it will start to get some grudging respect,” said Forresters Howe. “It will no longer be counterculture; it will be a tool for businesses, and people will use it.”
Executive Editor Debra Donston can be reached at [email protected]