Changes Afoot

By Bob Violino  |  Posted 07-10-2008

Open Source`s New Frontier

By now, every CIO should be aware of the enterprise potential of Linux and other popular open-source software offerings. But the number and breadth of open-source projects has increased steadily over the years, and organizations can apply these tools to virtually any type of business process.

Three emerging areas in which open source could make a dramatic difference for businesses are voice over IP (VoIP) telephony, customer relationship management (CRM) and mobility.

Today, companies generally employ open source in limited ways. "It's primarily being used in a tactical fashion in skunkworks projects and in internal infrastructure efforts," says Bernard Golden, CEO of Navica, a systems integration and consulting firm that focuses on open source.

Some organizations overtly favor open- source implementations over proprietary options, using the latter only when necessary. But hardly any enterprises have begun to recast their IT strategy with open source at its foundation.

Industry research backs that up. Open source is not a high priority among strategic software initiatives today. Instead, businesses use it as a tactical tool for achieving mission-critical initiatives, such as implementing enterprise collaboration strategies, adopting service-oriented architecture (SOA) and implementing Web 2.0, according to a December 2007 report by Forrester Research, an IT research and advisory firm.

Adoption of open source other than Linux remains limited. Forrester had surveyed North American and European software decision-makers in 2006 about their adoption of Linux and open source, and found that some one-third of North American respondents and 39 percent of European respondents indicated they were using open source. But when Linux was excluded in the 2007 survey, the numbers dropped to 17 percent in North America and 21 percent in Europe.

Why is Linux making headway in the enterprise while other open-source products are not? For one thing, the major Linux distributions are far more visible than the alternatives. For another, Linux technology is more mature than many other open-source projects.

Still, interest in the software remains high. Forrester's research revealed that two-thirds of the enterprises expressed at least some degree of interest in open source. And there's huge potential for open source to make inroads into business applications and processes.

"Open-source activity is taking place in almost every software segment," says Raven Zachary, open-source research director at the IT research firm The 451 Group. Golden agrees that open source is becoming increasingly pervasive in the software market. "Every area in which software plays a role in today's enterprise has open-source options," he says.

Deployment of open source offers clear cost advantages--many of the distributions are free to use--as well as scale and agility. That, Golden says, helps CIOs stretch their budgets even further.

Paul Hamerman, a research analyst at Forrester, adds: "Mature open-source projects are, in many cases, competitive, low-cost alternatives to commercial products. This is more often the case when there is a business model associated with the open-source solutions, including services and licensed enhancements."

While cost savings remains the No. 1 selling point for open-source adoption in the enterprise, IT executives also point to flexibility. "Flexibility in this case means the ability to adapt open source to your environment and to have access to source code to make changes, if necessary," says Zachary of The 451 Group.

The research director advises IT managers to "sell" open source on cost savings and to prepare a compelling financial projection proving those savings, even though there will be other benefits that come from open-source projects.

Changes Afoot

Challenges Afoot

Clearly, there are a number of potential benefits to be had, but CIOs also need to be aware of the challenges common to many open-source implementations. According to Forrester's 2007 report, the top two concerns about adoption of Linux and all other distributions are security and the availability of service and support.

Some CIOs are convinced that open source doesn't have professional support options. However, Zachary says this belief is diminishing as more vendors offer service-level agreements around the most popular open-source components.

Navica's Golden thinks concerns about support are overblown. "Most organizations that use open source find that support and maintenance issues are not significant, and, in fact, may be less than issues experienced with proprietary vendors," he says.

It's important to build open-source software skills and recognize the difference between community-oriented IT products and vendor-centric products. Golden says that cultural issues tend to be sticking points, as organizations have to deal with the inherent cultural change of procuring software via the open-source community, compared with purchasing commercial offerings.

Education is a major issue for most companies considering open source, particularly for IT, legal and procurement departments. "Some legal departments have been adverse to open-source licenses, especially the general public license or copyleft-type licenses [a practice of modifying software copyrights] because they are worried about the intellectual property implications," says Zachary of The 451 Group.

In addition, some procurement departments have been confused by the distinct nature of "purchasing" open source in terms of services and not licensing maintenance as has traditionally been done with proprietary software vendors.

"As enterprises gain comfort with open source over time, these issues become less of a barrier for adoption," Zachary says.

Open Telephony

Open Telephony

VoIP is one of the areas in which open source is having a significant impact. Companies including Digium, Fonality and Pingtel (owned by Bluesocket) have commercial open-source offerings for VoIP that meet the needs of small and midsize businesses, as well as larger enterprises.

"We're also seeing regional VoIP offerings that are providing hosted VoIP services based on open-source technology," Zachary says. "A number of VoIP open-source projects are emerging from the community, and many are focused around the consumer market."

The open-source VoIP projects in operation today include Asterisk, CallWeaver and SipXecs.

In 2004, Hersha Hospitality, a real estate investment group that invests in hotels in business districts and suburban office markets, replaced an aging time-division multiplexing (TDM) phone system with an Asterisk-based VoIP system from Digium.

The old system provided limited calling capabilities and was running out of capacity, so it could not accommodate Hersha's growing business. The company looked into several options, including other TDM systems and hybrid systems that combined VoIP and TDM.

Harrisburg, Pa.-based Hersha opted for VoIP because of the potential cost savings and additional calling functions, such as in-house teleconferencing, that the technology would provide. To keep costs of the new phone system down even more, Hersha chose to build the VoIP system internally using open-source software rather than buying a commercial VoIP system.

"When we made the move to VoIP, two of our requirements were flexibility and low barrier to entry," says Jason Shane, Hersha's IT director. "Asterisk measures very strong in both areas."

Hersha's IT department built the system in phases using Asterisk. The company later tried to expand its VoIP system to connect employees in the Harrisburg office with those in a key Philadelphia facility via direct dialing and conferencing.

But expanding the system was more of a challenge than Hersha expected, and the company brought in telephony consulting firm EUS Networks to help rebuild the VoIP systems in Harrisburg and Philadelphia so they would be more scalable.

EUS completed the makeover in 2007, and Hersha now uses the Asterisk-based system as its voice telecom backbone. The VoIP servers handle direct-dial calling between the sites and remote offices, voice mail, conferencing and other functions. Shane estimates that Hersha spent about $375,000 less for the Asterisk systems than it would have for a commercial VoIP product.

With the VoIP system, Hersha built remote offices quickly and enabled staff and mobile users to connect with voice mail, fax to e-mail, and contact colleagues and partners with instant messaging. Hersha plans to launch an enterprisewide IM system--using an open-source platform called Openfire--that ties in with its VoIP phone and e-mail systems.

But it wasn't a cake walk. One of the challenges that Hersha faced was overcoming the misconception that open source is free: The software was free, but implementing and supporting it added extra costs. "But once the company saw the value of the system and we brought in appropriate support," Shane says, "we've never looked back."

Sweet on Customers

Sweet on Customers

CRM is another potential growth area for open source. In fact, Zachary of The 451 Group views it as one of the major trends in the open-source world, along with software as a service. Good examples of these two trends are Salesforce.com in SaaS and SugarCRM in SaaS and CRM. "Both of these trends are in response to what has been monolithic CRM software sold in large sums to enterprise customers," Zachary says.

Other popular open-source CRM offerings include SplendidCRM from SplendidCRM Software, Concourse-Suite from Concursive, and SugarCRM offshoot Vtiger. Some of the open-source enterprise resource planning vendors such as Compiere and Openbravo include CRM features with their ERP products.

Healthscreen Solutions, a Toronto medical records, billing and patient-scheduling software and services firm, began using SugarCRM in 2005 to track sales to its doctor clients, forecast future sales, and manage its operational and sales workflows. About 100 employees use the CRM application in some way each day.

"Without SugarCRM we could not have achieved a high level of growth," says Martin Ross, Healthscreen vice president of technology. "Our entire back office runs off it." The software's reporting module and dashboard give the company critical business metrics that would be too onerous to collect manually.

Integration with other systems is both easier and more necessary with SugarCRM than with commercial CRM products, says Ross, who explains that "it is more necessary since SugarCRM is not yet the dominant player, so prepackaged connectors to other products are rarer" than they are for offerings such as Salesforce.com's CRM.

However, integration and customization are more flexible compared with proprietary offerings, Ross says. For example, Healthscreen uses JIRA, a Web-based bug-tracking and issue-tracking application from Atlassian Software Systems. Building links from JIRA to SugarCRM took some time, but Ross claims it wouldn't have been possible using Salesforce or Microsoft software.

Because Healthscreen has a professional license for its CRM software, it receives support when needed from SugarCRM. From a corporate culture standpoint, adopting SugarCRM has had no impact, as many of the company's employees have been using open-source products for years, Ross says.

Moving Into Mobile

Moving Into Mobile

Analysts expect open source to be increasingly adopted in mobile computing and communications technologies. ABI Research projects that by 2013 nearly one of every five mid- or high-end mobile devices will use a Linux operating system.

Among the factors promoting the growth of mobile open source are the increasing momentum of the LiMo Foundation--a consortium of companies including Motorola, NEC, Samsung and Panasonic Mobile Communications focused on creating a Linux-based operating system for mobile devices--and the launch of Google's Android, a Linux-based operating system for mobile devices.

In June, Nokia announced plans to acquire all the shares of Symbian--which provides an open platform for mobile devices--that Nokia doesn't already own. Nokia says the acquisition is a fundamental step in establishing the Symbian Foundation, an effort to promote open-source software for mobile technology.

Zachary of The 451 Group says most of the activity in mobile open source is taking place with operating systems. Mobile handset makers have been moving toward the Linux operating system for planned smart phones, and they've shown great interest in Google Android. Even before that, they expressed interest in Trolltech's Greenphone and OpenMoko, he adds.

Oxford Archaeology, an Oxford, England, provider of archaeology services, uses the FreeRunner mobile phone--built on the OpenMoko open-source mobile platform--as the base component of its digital toolset for researchers in the field. It includes high-speed mobile Internet connectivity, a GPS receiver, Wi-Fi connectivity and other features.

The device allows workers to digitally record text data produced by archaeologists working on excavations and to record spatial data via the GPS receiver. FreeRunner devices are used in conjunction with USB keyboards to record information that can be sent to company databases. Workers also can use the devices to access information from those databases.

"We are developing ubiquitous computing tools to be used on site by our field archaeologists," says Joseph Reeves, Oxford's supervisor of IT research and development. "The OpenMoko FreeRunner fits this role perfectly."

The company also does a lot of paper data recording on-site, and that information is then entered into databases in the home office. "We aim to remove this data duplication process and enter our data digitally in the field," Reeves says. "By using FreeRunner, we can undertake new methods of working that were previously unavailable to us."

Traditionally, data moves slowly from excavation sites to the office and rarely the other way, Reeves says. "Devices such as the FreeRunner allow instantaneous and symmetrical communication," he says.

Open source is essential to Oxford Archaeology. "We are in the business of preservation by record, and the only way we can produce robust records is to adopt a completely open-source stack," Reeves says.

The open-source development environment is enormously important for Oxford.

"If we need something that's not available, it can easily be produced," Reeves explains. "If the operating system has a bug in it, we can fix it. Such freedoms aren't afforded by closed-source mobile environments."

Key Questions to Ask

Key Questions to Ask

Before jumping into an open-source implementation, consult your fellow executives on these key issues.

Ask your CEO:

  • How well will the procurement and use of open-source software fit into our corporate culture?

Ask your operations group:

  • For which applications or functions do we stand to gain the most from an open-source implementation?
  • Which are the most viable open-source platforms for those areas?
  • Do we have the in-house expertise to fix problems that might arise with open-source applications?
  • If we don't have such expertise, what would we need to do to get it?

Ask your CSO or CISO:

  • Do you have any concerns about the security of any open-source platforms, and, if so, what do you recommend we do to bolster security if we implement open source?

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