Open Source Secrets

By Darrell Dunn  |  Posted 08-01-2007

Open Source Secrets

Vision

Open source is no longer a stranger in many IT shops as more companies become comfortable with the reliability of the ever evolving technology to develop crucial systems. Despite the prominence of licensed, proprietary software within the IT organization, open source proponents say their companies benefit from a community of contributors who help cultivate open source software that leads to rapid development of faster, less expensive and more flexible options.

Evidence of the growing popularity of open source software can be found in CIO Insight's May survey of IT leaders at midsize companies, in which more than half said their firms use or will soon deploy open source solutions for Web servers, browsers, database management, middleware, program development and security. In addition, a May IDC study shows worldwide revenue for open source software will balloon to $5.8 billion in 2011 from $1.8 billion 2006. That's a growth rate three times faster than the total software market, IDC says, though open source constitutes a mere 1 percent of worldwide software sales. And advocates of open source point out that most of its revenues come from annual subscriptions that cost 10 times less than equivalent licenses.

Open source may reduce software costs and vendor dependence, and improve flexibility and quality, but pitfalls exist. Commercialized open source software often comes from start-ups with limited staffs and abilities to support their products, and implementation frequently requires assistance from knowledgeable in-house staff or third parties. And, it's not truly free, particularly if you must rely on support services from the vendors, their partners or third parties.

What's more, nearly six of 10 IT leaders at midsize companies report compatibility problems when trying to get open source software to work with proprietary systems, according to CIO Insight research. Four in 10 say availability and cost or quality of vendor support, as well as training, present a significant problem. Also troublesome: users' reluctance to switch from familiar, proprietary systems. In many companies, in fact, using open source means a cultural change, in which sharing information with others—inside and outside the company—must be undertaken to exploit all the technology's benefits.

Those concerns didn't deter Weather Channel Interactive, the Weather Channel unit that oversees the company's online operations. The migration to open source for weather.com was a slow and cautious effort that "snowballed" over several years; today the business has moved nearly all its critical software to open source-based products, according to CTO Dan Agronow. The results of the software and hardware overhaul: 30 percent increased capacity and 50 percent decreased cost, Agronow says.

Weather.com launched in 1996 with the rise of the dot-com era, and built an IT infrastructure around Sun Microsystems servers and Sun's Solaris operating system. The tech collapse of 2000, and the terrorist attacks a year later, caused advertising revenues to all but evaporate. The company needed to reduce operational expenses, so it switched to commodity Dell and Hewlett-Packard servers using x86-based processors. Agronow began to explore open source software, and found he didn't have far to look for expertise. Some of the weather.com IT staff had ties to the open source community. Others bought into the idea of change.

First, staffers conducted a proof-of-concept test for running a basic image-surfing application—software that lets users move from image to image—on an x86-based server running Linux. The test showed open source could work within the weather.com infrastructure. The company was sold on open source, and over the following years implemented Apache Tomcat to replace its IBM WebSphere middleware and MySQL to replace its Oracle database. IT adopted Nagios for system management, Bugzilla for change requests and Eclipse for software development. The open source migration occurred as site traffic soared to more than 35 million unique users per month, one of the top 15 Web sites.

Agronow says weather.com didn't miss the vendor support that comes with commercial software. He disparages paid premium support from conventional vendors, saying customers often spend hours wading through a "chain of command" before securing needed developer-level assistance and getting fixes that won't be broadly available until the software's next release. If anything, he says, weather.com obtained superior support from the community of open source developers. "Now we put a question out to the open source support communities on the Internet, and get responses back quickly, providing usable information," Agronow says. "You're not limited to just the software vendor's staff, but can access a whole community that may be bigger than the staffs of the largest commercial software vendors. That kind of support has allowed us to gain control of our software and have much more flexibility."

Still, some companies fear such cooperation with outsiders could put their intellectual property at risk, perhaps jeopardizing patents and copyrights. "It is still murky enough that there is a cloud causing some potential users to remain cautious when adopting open source," says IDC analyst Matthew Lawton.

Forrester analyst Michael Goulde suggests that businesses create a "ring" around their employees working on open source projects to assure there is no cross-contamination from a company's internal, proprietary software development.

Ask your IT staff:

Is anyone here involved in an open source project or interested in participating in one?

Ask your legal department:

Does the company have any concerns about patents and copyrights associated with open source software and code?

Next page: Open Source Collaboration

Collaboration

Collaboration

Lower cost leads businesses to open source, but freedom of choice and the ability to harness a community of developers makes converts. CIOs find open source platforms adaptable to their business objectives and a vehicle for accelerating innovation.

As its online presence and readership grew, the Christian Science Monitor's IT department two years ago began exploring options for adapting content from its print publication for its Internet site. The Monitor had embarked on a shift to open source, particularly software associated with operating the Web site, employing the Apache Web server, JBoss application server, Liferay portal and MySQL database.

CTO Terry Barbounis had been watching the progress of a new open source content management system maker called Alfresco, created by Documentum co-founder John Newton and Business Objects former COO John Powell.

After Newton visited the Monitor's development staff at their Boston offices, the media company adopted Alfresco. Its use lets the Monitor achieve "a new level of convergence" between print and online, with print-generated content easily transferable to the Web site, Barbounis says.

But integration and management of open source software requires expertise and time resources not readily available in his own IT staff, Barbounis says. The Monitor relies on a third-party system integrator and the open source community to customize its Alfresco deployment. "We're not really interested in going under the covers and changing source code, but we believe that with the community around open source we can be innovative without having to have the size of staff that a larger organization could afford," Barbounis says.

Working with that broader open source community, the Monitor IT staff developed a Lightweight Directory Access Protocol plug-in component to solve a problem getting Alfresco to operate with its portal, which uses Liferay open source software. The code was contributed to the community and adopted by Alfresco, which used it in its product until developing its own LDAP.

An Alfresco platinum subscription costs $20,000 per CPU a year, and the Monitor spent about a third the cost of a licensed platform in the first year of deployment, including new servers to handle the installation, and Barbounis estimates subsequent savings will be around 50 percent a year. Part of those savings, however, will be used to pay for high-level support.

Ask your business unit managers:

How well does our existing software adapt to changing business requirements, and how quickly can the IT staff resolve issues?

Ask your CFO:

Can we justify expanding the IT staff to accommodate increased open source efforts by reducing fees spent on software licenses?

Next page: Open Source Implementation

Implementation

Implementation

Open source deployments let enterprise IT staffs work in concert with vendors and related communities, resulting in speedier implementation and problem resolution and continuing support.

Warner Music Group is constantly acquiring new talent to add to its roster of some of the best-known recording labels such as Asylum, Atlantic, Elektra, Reprise and Rhino, and artists such as Eric Clapton, Green Day, Linkin Park, Madonna, Neil Young and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Warner IT staff faces the challenge of helping administer and provide development services to more than 200 individual Web sites.

Controlling the myriad sites became increasingly difficult using a proprietary licensed asset management system Warner had acquired in 2001, says Sanjay Sen, Warner's senior director of digital properties.

Within of two years of deployment, Sen had found the software provider too rigid and unresponsive to meet the dynamic requirements of online entertainment and e-commerce. Warner software architects felt that fixing the system would require rewriting the vendor's code. Requests for changes in the licensed software would take months to be implemented, he says, slowing Warner's ability to add and create new Web sites. Sen was stung that Warner was paying what he considered a premium price in licensing fees, and maintenance and support services, for a platform that wasn't getting the job done.

In 2001, when Warner bought the original asset management software, Sen didn't consider open source a viable alternative because he felt the community then was not mature and had limited resources. But in 2004, after hearing open source success stories from colleagues, he decided to attempt a transition to JBoss. The JBoss platform provided an ability to scale quickly, cost "significantly" less than the conventional software, and placed the advancement of the software in the hands of Warner's own IT staff, Sen says.

Using JBoss and the Spring Framework—an open source system for assembling components using configuration files—Warner has put together a content management system that more than adequately handles the load of the various labels and artists. The new platform has made it simpler to add features such as advertising links and launch new services with mobile providers, such as the February agreement with Telenor, one of Europe's largest telecommunications companies, to offer a variety of Warner content on its mobile network.

The JBoss application server was used to create business services, such as user registration and polls, that all Warner Web sites can access. Warner's Digital Properties Division developed a number of common Web site services that the developers could drag and drop into their sites.

Without software licensing fees, capital costs have been reduced, but it's the community support Sen believes will be key to even longer-term success. "Within an hour you can be talking to people with a similar problem, or maybe someone who has solved the problem," he says. "If you're trying to do something, then there is probably someone else trying to do it as well, and you can get their help and support."

Warner added security features to the JBoss content management platform modifying the existing open source code. After online discussions with open source contributors, the Warner IT staff identified a Spring-based authentication and access control framework called Acegi Security that it integrated into the content management platform with little effort.

Warner IT keeps prioritized lists of end user concerns and requests, reevaluating monthly and making changes, fixes or enhancements to the platform, at times tapping into the open source community for advice. "For areas where you need to be on the cutting edge and are working with emerging technology, the trend has to be to using open source," Sen says. "It's particularly important for efforts that are Web-related and where there is already a sense of community and collaboration."

That's because the open source community demonstrates a level of technology sophistication and a willingness to experiment, something missing in many traditional businesses. This gives companies such as Warner the opportunity to learn the latest in open source developments and embrace the evolving nature of open source software.

Most enterprises are unlikely to rip out productive licensed software, but for new installations, and where the cost and manageability of conventional software have become prohibitive, open source solutions are destined to rise in favor. Open source's ability to hold down costs compared with licensed software, and the capabilities it enables through its growing community, will continue to drive adoption.

Ask your CTO:

Can greater use of open source software and participation in open source communities by our IT staff provide tangible benefits?

Ask your marketing/sales staff:

What opportunities do we miss because of the time it takes IT to make changes and fixes?

Please send questions or comments on this story to editors@cioinsight-ziffdavis.com.