Opening the Open Debate

IT officials see open source and open standards as key budget issues.

When mapping out the new years budget, determining between open source and open standards is quickly becoming a key issue.

Thats according to leading IT executives who met recently at the Cyberposium conference here to discuss the future of IT.

Executives from such companies as Microsoft Corp., IBM, Sun Microsystems Inc. and Red Hat Inc. took part in the annual technology showcase, sponsored by Harvard Universitys Harvard Business School. And all agreed that distinguishing between open source and open standards was especially important in procurements.

Evidence of the trend, they said, can be found in Massachusetts, which recently switched its IT procurement policy from a focus on open source to a focus on open standards and best value.

Jason Matusow, who is manager of Microsofts Shared Source Initiative, said that "often when these proposals are put into place, governments come back and say we want to purchase software based on value."

Dan Frye, director of IBMs Linux Technology Center, said that "if we sit down with a government, we want to be able to say whether we should approach it with proprietary or open source."

Added Simon Phipps, chief technology evangelist at Sun: "Its dangerous to mandate any form of technology, whether open source or proprietary."

In an off-the-cuff remark, Mike Tiemann, chief technology officer at Red Hat, said, "[Mandating open-source software] is far less serious and immoral than the United States willingness to export democracy by force."

More to the point, Tiemann asked, "Can proprietary software be an open standard? Or can open software become an open standard without going through a standards process?"

Still, open standards versus open source represents a potential key issue in the emerging procurement process, particularly for governments, some executives argued.

"The standards question is very deep," said Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society and a professor at Harvard Law School. "The need for standards is like the [U.S. presidential candidate Howard] Dean campaign; whether you like him or not, its grassroots—the campaign is standardless."

The IT executives also pointed to areas of innovation and opportunity in the open-source world.

Asheem Chandna, a venture partner with Greylock, a Waltham, Mass., venture capital company that was the original investor in Red Hat, said he sees merging opportunities in the database world, the security arena and the area of building a licensing business around open source. As examples, Chandna pointed to open-source database maker MySQL AB; open-source security systems supplier Sourcefire Inc.; and Black Duck Software Inc., which is a provider of intellectual property risk management solutions.

Tiemann said that with Red Hats acquisition of storage infrastructure provider Sistina Software Inc. last month, "we see storage as an area ripe for commoditization."

Meanwhile, others contended that open source ushers in a new world of freedom and a new world of questions surrounding licensing. "A lot of the [open-source] licenses are not clear," and that is challenging to potential user organizations, said Douglas Levin, president and chief executive of Black Duck. "There are 49 open-source licenses and 25 unauthorized but commonly used licenses."

Regarding licensing, "this whole thing has gotten so blown out of proportion, its not funny," said Chris Stone, who is vice chairman of Novell Inc.

"You need to look out for a viral effect," Stone said. "I think SCO [The SCO Group Inc.] has done a disservice to the entire [open-source] movement by claiming they own the entire Unix that is within Linux, which by Novells perception is a bunch of crap—which is why we indemnify it."