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Cost isn't the only rationale for open source adoption

Bridget Botelho

BOSTON-- Virgin America Airlines moved from commercial software to free, open source software, but it didn’t do so to save a buck.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, saving money isn’t the only reason to go open source, according to Ravi Simhambhatla, CIO for Virgin America, who spoke at

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LinuxCon 2010 here last week.

Though he was preaching to the converted at the show, Simhambhatla said he had his work cut out for him convincing Virgin America executives to ditch Microsoft Windows, Sharepoint and other commercially supported products in favor of open source software.

He had to prove that performance, stability and reliability were better than the commercial products the airline already used, and that it would require less maintanence than existing systems. He was able to do so. "We have 100% uptime and we only have one Linux systems administrator," Simhambhatla said.

Frank Basanta, director of technology for Systems Solutions, a systems integrator based in New York, said the stability open source systems provide is more important than cost.

“Open source software is very stable – we use it ourselves and don’t have any issues. It just runs and runs,” Basanta said.

The lower costs associated with open source were a bonus for Virgin America, he said. For instance, the company circumvented expensive vendor contracts and reduced the need for high-cost hardware and storage, as most open source software operates nicely on low-spec platforms, Simhambhatla said.

“Going open source saves us $4 to $4.5 million each year in IT spending, and we have much better performance and reliability, so why wouldn’t we use it?” Simhambhatla quipped.

Today, almost their entire IT infrastructure is open source-based, including the in-flight entertainment system -- Red. Virgin America uses Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5.4 for its website, frequent flyer database, data and systems integration, border e-mail gateways, and anti-spam system. They also switched from a commercial VPN to OpenVPN and use KnowledgeTree for document management, MySQL for database, and HAProxy for load balancing and failover.

Open source -- it isn’t about the money
Some open source proponents say cost should never be the top reason for moving to open source, because in the end, it isn’t free.

“Cost is certainly something that drives people to open source, but in many ways it sets unreasonable expectations on vendors,” said John Locke, manager of the Seattle-based open source business solution provider Freelock Computing. “If the software is valued at $0, some [companies] think whatever feature they need should also be free, instead of something they have to pay to develop.”

People want software that just runs and runs, because that’s where you save time and money.

Frank Basanta, director of technology, Systems Solutions

Sophisticated software is expensive to maintain, whether it’s open source or commercial, and the more complicated the system, the more a company will spend over time, he said.

For instance, Locke uses the open source content management system Drupal, and said “it's far from a free solution.”

“There's a constant stream of security updates that somebody needs to apply -- and if it's not a vendor, it's probably an employee,” he said. “You're going to pay somebody either way.”

Some LinuxCon attendees agreed that cost isn’t the number one driver; they use open source for the flexibility and reliability it provides, and the flexibility to avoid vendor lock-in.

In fact, the risk of commercial vendor lock-in is one of the biggest drivers among  open source customers. With open source, IT pros know if they aren’t happy with a service provider, there are other developers capable of providing support.

“With a proprietary, software as a service vendor, if you like the software but have problems with the vendor, you're stuck -- you have no alternative but to start over on a new platform,” Locke said.

While “free” open source software isn’t actually free at the end of the day, the benefits it provides, and the stability in particular, summate into significant cost savings, said Systems Solutions’ Basanta.

“People want software that just runs and runs, because that’s where you save time and money -- when you don’t have to put your hands on it every month, like terrible Tuesdays with Microsoft,” Basanta said.

Many IT shops run a mix of Windows and Linux, because some applications simply require Windows, but Basanta said he always recommends substituting Linux for Windows wherever possible.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.


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