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.

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