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Is the Linux developer community dominated by wild-eyed dreamers, zealots and technology socialists? Or is it a highly democratized force of expert coders?

Plenty of IT organizations have pondered whether the supposed benefit of the open-source developer community was all it was cracked up to be. Was the advantage of leveraging the collective contributions of passionate programmers, benevolently overseen by the now-iconic Linus Torvalds, worth the anxiety of working with a largely unstructured group of developers?

"When I think of the Linux developer community, the pro is their enthusiasm and support for each other," says Mary Scavarda, CIO of Argonaut Insurance Co. in Menlo Park, Calif., which is evaluating migrating from Unix to Linux. "The flip side is that it seems unstructured—less than professional."

That image of the open-source community as a ragtag group of freelancing programmers with wildly divergent motivations is beginning to melt away, however. And with that change comes more confidence in the quality of both open-source code itself and the support provided by key hardware and software vendors. "The makeup of the community used to be a concern for an enterprise buyer, especially for the CEO even more than the CIO," according to Aberdeen's Claybrook. "But if you look at who's part of the open-source developer community today, it's increasingly made up of people who work at large commercial organizations like Red Hat Inc. and IBM. It's no longer this loosey-goosey group of rogue developers; they're elite programmers who really want to do this, rather than being assigned to it."

That means that when a new feature, such as messaging or network monitoring, is approved and added to the kernel, corporate IT developers can make use of and even enhance those added features. Of course, the downside of this "community of coders" is that when new code is returned to the community, it hasn't been tested for how—or if—it will run with another company's core applications. That means CIOs need to make sure their development teams are doing compatibility and security testing of the new code.

It's also important to remember that, while Linux may be free of licensing costs, there still are important legal requirements to consider. The "rules of the road" for working with the Linux community's code are set down in the General Public License, which companies have to sign if they want to use the Linux source code for development. The GPL does not restrict selling or redistributing Linux-based software; however, it does require that source-code modifications be returned to the open-source community as full source code. CIOs should advise their development teams to be careful not to inadvertently return proprietary applications code to the community—only modifications to the source code.

When push comes to shove, the central issue concerning the open-source development community has less to do with how the community operates than it does with letting the CIO sleep easier at night. Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL AB, the Swedish developer of the popular MySQL open-source database, admits there's a lot of "romance" surrounding the supposedly non-commercial motivation of the open-source developer world. "But the CIO doesn't give a damn about all that altruistic stuff," says Mickos. "He wants to know it will work, that it will save him money and that it will be supported for at least 10 to 20 years."

Ask Your CTO:

  • Have you tested new applications based on open-source code to make sure they work in our legacy environments?

    Ask Your Programmers:

  • What, if any, experiences have you had in contributing to the development of open source?

    Ask Your Legal Counsel:

  • What intellectual property issues should we be evaluating before signing the General Public License?

  • This article was originally published on 12-01-2003
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