There's been an incredible amount of news and gossip about open source over the past year. Between the SCO lawsuits, the Microsoft Windows versus Linux TCO campaign, and the IBM "Linux Everywhere" advertising blitz, open source seems to have gotten more coverage than the Brad and Jennifer split. You might be forgiven for thinking the whole open source thing is overblown—plenty of smoke but no fire.
You'd be wrong. Open source has been gathering steam and is now a technology that you must take into account in your IT planning. Failing to do so isn't just about missing the "latest big thing," it may mean harming your company's financial performance.
There are two trends in open source adoption that make it imperative that you consider open source solutions for your future IT initiatives. This article describes each of the trends and discusses their importance for your business.
Trend #1: Open Source Moves into the Mainstream
There are over 90,000 open source projects available for downloading at SourceForge (http://www.sourceforge.net/). While the variety of applications is staggering, the projects share common characteristics. They are typically started by an individual or small group and are initially released in a fairly rudimentary form—providing base level functionality, but with few bells and whistles, not to mention spotty documentation and a small user community.
As such, early stage projects can only really be used by technically sophisticated organizations, ones with good sized IT staffs made up of experienced and inquisitive individuals. Organizations like these are willing to put up with early stage open source software because they can take advantage of it despite its rough edges.
In the market segmentation parlance of the technology industry, these organizations go by the name of "early adopters." These pioneers are willing to go out on a limb to reach the early fruit and thereby gain a jump on the competition. As noted, however, the rewards early adopters net are accompanied by higher IT costs as well as a willingness to live with "half-baked" open source products.
Most organizations aren't early adopters, though. They belong to the mainstream: companies that compete along other dimensions than first to market—like quality of service, or price—instead. For those companies, IT lives with tighter budgets. Their IT staff tends to be less adventurous and more pragmatic—focused on reliable delivery of necessary services. In the past, these organizations weren't able to take advantage of open source because of its rough-and-ready nature.
However, there's good news for mainstream companies today. The user community of many open source products has grown dramatically. This growth is a sign of the increased maturity of the products, a key factor in determining whether a given open source product is ready for use by mainstream organizations. Increased maturity is typically accompanied by better documentation, fuller feature sets, more support options, and so on (for more information on open source maturity assessment, please see http://www.navicasoft.com/pages/osmm.htm).
This increased maturity is reflected in the types of organizations that are implementing open source solutions. Far from tech highfliers (e.g., Google), they are companies like LaQuinta Inns, ABB, and Merrill Lynch. If you're a mainstream company, open source should be on your short list—today.
Trend #2: Open Source Moves up the Stack
Open source products have, in the past, been created by engineers for engineers. The phrase in the open source world is that products are created to "scratch an itch." This phrase illustrates how most projects got started—someone had a problem, created a tool to solve it, and then decided to share the tool so that others could solve the same problem as well.
Because open source products were created to solve engineering problems, they tended to be low-level software tools. Security tools, application servers, and databases are examples of the kinds of open source products created by the "scratch an itch" approach.
With a broad range of software tools available, early adopter organizations had the ability to create applications that suited their purpose exactly. In other words, early adopters pursued a purpose-built approach. With their larger IT staffs and technically sophisticated personnel, these organizations have the ability to take on the challenge of custom development.
Mainstream IT organizations are much less interested in custom-built applications. Their focus is on delivering end-user functionality. The wide availability of open source tools, while useful, has not helped with their mission of acquiring and implementing excellent end-user applications—until now.
Building upon the base of open source tools, there are now projects focused on delivering more business-oriented software packages—often referred to as applications residing further up the software stack. Please see figure 1, which depicts the types of open source products available throughout the software stack.
Figure 1. The open source software stack. Navica, 2004
What this means for your organization is that open source projects have sprung up to take on the burden of integrating lower-level open source applications and providing a complete package that delivers high-level functionality. Consequently, you can devote more resources to configuring the functionality of the application and less to the construction of the application itself.
Who is responsible for creating these higher-level applications? In contrast to the volunteer-oriented project teams that create the traditional open source tools, these project teams are typically sponsored by commercial entities. These project sponsors explicitly focus on using their open source applications as a foundation for generating revenues. So, for example, both Compiere and SugarCRM sell support services for their open source products (SugarCRM also sells a more fully-featured version of their product on a commercially-licensed basis).
The fact that these applications are associated with commercial entities also addresses one of the most important concerns of mainstream IT organizations: application support. Unlike the early adopters, these organizations prefer to draw upon outside expertise rather than try and employ it internally. With commercial entities offering paid support for their open source applications, mainstream organizations can rely on the product developers to help with application problems.
Open Source Trends: The Bottom Line
Open source software is no longer only used by large, technically sophisticated IT organizations. Mainstream organizations are now gaining the benefits of open source: lower cost and flexibility of use.
Open source is now offering a whole new range of opportunities for these organizations as well. With its climb up the software stack, it's now much easier to implement open source. Instead of having to cobble together customized applications, complete end-user products are available. Even if you lack a large IT staff, you can achieve good results with open source.
If you haven't considered using open source before, now is the time to start. Your partners—and competitors—are implementing open source today. Why not join them?
About the Author
Bernard Golden is chief executive officer of Navica, a consulting firm offering open source strategy, implementation, and training services. He is the author of Succeeding with Open Source (Addison-Wesley, 2005), as well as the forthcoming Open Source Best Practices.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.