Like rock n' roll, open source here to stay

Open source software isn't a craze and won't be a short-lived fad in the corporate IT environment. More importantly, OSS isn't being put on the back burner by the corporate world. For every wait-and-see CIO, there are dozens who are eager to leverage the value of OSS in their organizations.

Many large and small companies -- from $2 billion Sabre Holdings to a small Alaska telephone company -- are putting production-ready open source products to work today and achieving significant return-on-investment and performance. We'll explore some of those projects in this story, as well as the ways that open source empowers IT organizations to make their businesses more productive and profitable.

Before drilling down, however, let's look at the big picture. Well, let's search for that big picture. There are no studies that clearly state or even make a reasonable estimate of open source software's market share in the corporate world. Quantifying the number of users of open source software has been difficult, because the software is largely acquired via free downloads.

There are about 100,000 open source products in development today. About 100 of these products are horizontal applications ready to be put into production by businesses now. Add to this dozens of open source vertical market applications that target smaller industries.

Look at the products in almost any category of business application today, and you'll find a production-ready open source offering. For instance, there are the MySQL and Computer Associates OpenIngres databases; JBoss in application servers; the Apace Web server; Asterisk in the open source private branch exchange (PBX) area ; OpenNMS in network management; e-mail servers like Sendmail, PostFix, SquirrelMail and PostgreSQL; and content management such as Joomla!, Bricolage, Zope and phpWebsite.

As more commercial, production-ready open source products such as these become available, so will statistics about numbers of users. In the meantime, there is some information from the acknowledged leaders in commercial open source software: JBoss Inc., The Apache Foundation and MySQL AB.

  • Between 500 and 1,000 corporations use the JBoss application server.
  • Of the six million commercial installations of MySQL, almost all are used by organizations and businesses.
  • Also, over 50% of all Web servers being used in the world today are open source Apache Web servers, according to the Netcraft Web server survey.
  • In general, no company can use e-mail without using open source software, in the form of Web and FTP servers and mail transports.

Businesses that have already deployed open source software report such benefits as low initial costs, a strong return-on-investment proposition, freedom from vendor lock-in and vendor-controlled upgrade cycles, less expensive licenses, production-level functionality and more.

Often, the low cost of entry for OSS prompts corporate evaluations, but other pluses hook them.

Southlake, Tex.-based Sabre Holdings Corp. provides the IT power behind online travel sites, including Travelocity. Using MySQL saved Sabre millions of dollars. More importantly, MySQL ran faster or as fast as any commercial database tested and never crashes, according to Sabre systems architect Alan Walker.

The low cost of OpenOffice, an open source desktop suite, caught the notice of Daniel Bray, network administrator for HealthFirst, a healthcare organization in Brevard County. His analysis showed that deploying OpenOffice would save HealthFirst $2 million over an upgrade of a proprietary product and continue to deliver savings in license fees for years.

Cost wasn't the whole story for Bray, who says: "The financial advantage wouldn't have done it without the functionality and technical ability of OpenOffice."

Learn more about the open source pioneers mentioned in this column:

HealthFirst and OpenOffice

MatanuskaTelephone and MySQL

Hugger-Mugger and Compiere

O'Reilly Publishing and Perl/MySQL

First Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and open source development

The same goes for Tom Chamberlain, president of Salt Lake City-based Hugger-Mugger, a yoga products manufacturer that now uses the open source ERP suite, Compiere. "Besides the low buy-in cost, Compiere on Linux and Oracle works," he says. "In particular, Compiere's customer order entry, shipping module, Web entry and other apps work well."

MySQL does the work needed by traffic administrator Rich Allen of Matanuska Telephone Association of Palmer, Alaska. Allen had to bypass proprietary databases like Oracle and IBM DB2, due to budgetary restrictions. Instead, he chose MySQL 4. Allen first had success using MySQL as the database for a logging and traffic data analysis application. Now, MySQL, Perl, Linux and Apache are the cornerstones of this traffic and reporting system, and he runs 12 other applications. With MySQL, getting information from these applications takes seconds instead of the minutes it once took, he says.

The fact that source code is available empowers organizations to customize their applications without restrictions. That's the hook that caught Hugger-Mugger and Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco.

"With Compiere, if you want to change something you can just do it," says Hugger-Mugger's Chamberlain. "With SAP or Baan, you'd have to go to them to make changes. We couldn't afford to pay for that. With Compiere, customizing ERP is affordable for a small company."

Federal Home Loan Bank's business involves many in-house solutions that have been coded by its developers to meet the bank's unique requirements. "Given this hard requirement, we use a variety of open source components in our specialized code to provide our solutions," says senior systems architect Mike Bedford. "Most of these applications are [best-of-breed] solutions that give us the needed edge to meet our customers' expectations."

Bedford makes a good point, as experts believe that the do-it-yourself freedom of open source software will be a primary adoption driver. Rather than having to change their businesses to fit the capabilities of proprietary software, businesses will be able to make the software fit their processes.

O'Reilly Media Inc. of Sebastopol, Calif., demonstrates how in-house development with open source software can cut software costs and deliver a tailored solution. O'Reilly built an in-house data warehouse application that analyzes technical book sales trends. The Perl scripting language was used to build applications that ran on MySQL on the Linux operating system on an inexpensive Intel-based server.

The software components of the warehouse cost nothing. One O'Reilly employee spent about three months to construct the data warehouse. Their data warehouse cost around $75,000, whereas a proprietary commercial version would have cost $300,000.

In many cases -- including the O'Reilly and Matanuska Telephone examples above -- companies never could have afforded the commercial proprietary software needed to make their businesses more productive and profitable. Open source is the great enabler that can help budget-strapped companies get the IT tools they need to do business more effectively.

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