New mindset, developers drive open source into Christian Science Monitor

As the Christian Science Monitor has shown, getting open source prevalent throughout an organization often requires a new way of thinking and maybe a few new like-minded developers as well.

CIO Curtis Edge likes proprietary applications, he really does, but if there were an equal to his Oracle Financials software in the open source world it could only be a matter of time before another migration was taking place at the Christian Science Monitor.

Indeed, this international daily newspaper has taken to the open source movement in earnest. Web applications run on the open source software stack LAMP (Linux, MySQL, Apache and PHP/Python/Perl) and planning is now underway to migrate the Monitor's Spirituality.com site off of Java-based Dynamo.

Linux runs throughout the data center, while development is underway with the UK-based Alfresco to eventually deploy that vendor's open source content management applications.

But beyond the tangibles like open source code it was the community that made a convert of Edge. Behind all the open code, it was the forums and flexibility that were the driving forces he believes breeds better developers than those that toil away with proprietary code.

Open source software makes developers more aggressive and more apt to go out into the communities that exist around the software to find solutions to their problems, Edge said, rather than holding on some proprietary help desk line while tech support looks up the answer.

Advice for moving to an open source environment:

"The best advice I've found received is to pick your partners carefully because you have to rely on the community and not the vendors. [At the Christian Science Monitor] we do not do much alone; we do not have enough staff to do things alone, but we are fortunate to have very good partners. Then create a good dialogue with that community. We're releasing our new site this week but that's only beginning. We will continue to evolve and unfold, and as we need new modules and tools, we want them to be flexible and readily available.  

It's also important for people to understand that for open source to work it is a two way street. You cannot just be a consumer of open source software; you must also be a contributor. This philosophy might not be advantageous to a company, but it will allow the community to grow. In the end this results in better software."  

 - Curtis Edge, CIO, The Christian Science Monitor

"Nothing can be more frustrating than paying someone a pile of money for support and then get someone on line who knows nothing about product," he said.

But the road to better developers wasn't an easy one. Edge said that as open source became more prevalent throughout the organization, turnover increased as the hands-on nature of the software took over.

"Fifteen years ago, there was a way to do [software] support. You had a number to call, you were put on hold with some crazy music, and then you explained your problem," he said.

Edge called it "one throat to choke," which involved finding someone to blame on the other end of a phone for problems with the software installed on his systems.

With open source however, it is the developer's neck on the line, and therefore a new breed of employee had to be introduced that would default to investigating the solution to a problem as opposed to picking up a phone to find someone to blame, Edge said.

"[Open source] developers are more aggressive when solving problems; these new developers are eager," Edge said. "At one point in time, shops were Microsoft shops or Oracle shops; open source versus proprietary. Today developers have gone from that environment to one where they instead want to find the best tools for the job."

And some of the best tools to be found in open source are intangible ones like stability and security. Edge dismissed concerns that might linger from the early days of open source regarding these topics, saying that the community model and "many eyes" on the code actually address security threats as fast as or faster than closed source code.

A third pillar of open source for Edge was the modular nature of its applications. Applications like Apache and JBoss were built in such a way that Edge and his staff could simply pull out the application if something newer or better came along.

Edge also appreciated the openness of the vendors themselves. Often when Edge had a question for a vendor, like U.K.-based open source content management firm Alfresco, he was able to speak directly with c-level executives.

"Rarely will we get [that conversation] when we go to a larger proprietary company," he said.

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