The Myths of Open Source

It isn't all about cheap: Companies keep finding good reasons to take advantage of open-source software.

AT FIRST GLANCE, the company Employease seems unremarkable. But look a little closer. Employease, which provides employee benefits administration services to more than 1,000 organizations across America, has an IT architecture chiefly built around open-source software, which makes it a rare bird—not that it was planned that way when the company was founded in 1996.

"Its been quite a surprise to me. The open-source model just seems intuitively wrong," says John Alberg, the companys cofounder, CIO, CTO and vice president of engineering. But the facts speak for themselves.

The companys 25 production application servers run on Red Hat Linux, having been switched from Windows NT in July 2000. Webpages once delivered by Netscape are now served by Apache, supplemented by Tomcat, an open-source Java servlet engine. Send an e-mail to Employease and its processed by Sendmail, an open-source mail server, while the companys software developers use XEmacs, an open-source development tool.

But thats not all. Although the companys main applications use Informix for database management, Alberg happily confesses that he can see a time when the proprietary software will be displaced by MySQL, an open-source relational database system already used by the company for less critical applications. Snort, an open-source intrusion detection tool, is also under active consideration, says Alberg.

Companies such as Employease herald a sea change in corporate attitudes toward open-source software. Once seen as flaky, cheap and the work of amateur developers, open source has emerged blinking into the daylight. With unrestricted access to the source code to run or modify at will, and support coming from an ad hoc collection of software developers and fellow users, the open-source model is very different from proprietary software. But it is nevertheless proving attractive enough for a host of CIOs to make the switch. So whos using open source? Why are they using it? And are the benefits worth the risks? The answers are surprising—and dispel some of the myths surrounding open source.

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