Open source pitchmen face tough sell at OSBC

Three open source startups had no shortage of concerns to address as they pitched their products to chief information officers at this week's Open Source Business Conference.

NEWTON, Mass. -- It was a sight that could become more common as the year ends and 2006 begins: Open source vendors pitching chief information officers and IT decision makers on the growing relevance of open source applications.

But even with that growing relevance, the responses from CIOs who heard the pitches from ActiveGrid, EnterpriseDB and XenSource seemed to indicate that open source software (OSS) vendors still have much to do in terms of gaining acceptance.

The process unfolded at this week's Open Source Business Conference in front of an audience that came to see if all the talk about OSS over the past year could sway a handful of CIOs to go the open source route.

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When the pitches ended, the questions began -- questions from companies like Fidelity Investments, Fannie Mae and State Street Corp. seemed to center on the longevity of open source companies.

What about your future?

Rick Carey, vice president in the office of the CIO for Fannie Mae, said he was concerned about the future of ActiveGrid. Carey wonders if the company would exist in two years or would be acquired by a bigger fish.

ActiveGrid is the open source vendor behind Grid Application Server, and was represented at the show by its CEO, Peter Yared. Carey said he wouldn't give the company a full endorsement because of his belief that the application server market is in trouble.

"My worry is that this [application server] space is being commoditized already," he said.

Carey admitted to having a former aversion to open source, but added that his company was now actively embracing it.

"Over the last year, we've put open source software into the portfolio, as well as Linux," Carey said. "Right now it's a big cultural change for us, [but] we understand the risks."

Sharing in Carey's concern was Maurizio Ferconi, managing director of financial engineering for Putnam Investments, who said OSS and proprietary sometimes don't mix.

Truly compliant out-of-the-box?

Edison, N.J.-based EnterpriseDB was represented by founder and CEO Andy Astor, who said the major selling points of his company's PostgreSQL-based database management system include its "out-of-the-box" compatibility with Oracle and competitive price.

Tim Vaverchak, director of open source strategy for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, said moving to an open source product like EnterpriseDB highlighted philosophical differences at this office.

"Our DBAs might be skeptical … they've heard from many organizations that the 'drop-it-in-and-it-works' line is not always the case," he said, referring to Astor's "out-of-the-box" pledge.

Jin Chun, chief applications officer of Boston-based State Street Corp., said he is receptive to the idea of an open source database technology, as long as certain concerns are addressed.

"From a developer standpoint, the database does not matter so long as it is secure, replicates well and has highly available features," Chun said.

Moshe Bar, co-founder and chief technology officer of XenSource, demonstrated the final OSS product.

Why sell direct?

Xen is an open source virtual machine monitor, or hypervisor, developed by the University of Cambridge. Moshe's company develops enterprise grade virtualization systems based on server virtualization technology.

Fannie Mae's Carey wondered whether it would make more sense if XenSource sold to his company's hardware and software vendors, instead of selling to Fannie Mae directly.

Putnam's Ferconi was curious about licensing costs with regards to virtualization. He was all for the idea of virtualization, but said he didn't want to pay separate licensing for each virtualized machine.

Chun was on board with XenSource because during the dot.com boom, State Street bought too much hardware and was now searching the commodity software stacks to offset the hardware costs.

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