Demand at the Fount of Open Source Part Two: A Primer Based in Demand Trends
The first part of this article concerned the Free and open source software (FOSS) origin and rapid evolution as manifested in global customer demand trends. This second part reviews reasons behind why enterprise clients and government organizations generate this demand, as well as why software providers should continue efforts to meet the demand. Together, these articles should offer an overview of FOSS concepts for both enterprise software clients and vendors that would like to be let in on the buzz resonating from FOSS-related change in the software industry.
It is a misconception that Free and open source software is available at no cost. This is not necessarily the case, both can be sold. FOSS licenses typically stipulate that the source code of the software (not the software itself) must be made available at no additional cost beyond what is required for its distribution to customers. The fact that one is free to modify the source code and redistribute it, forms the basis for the notion of liberty in software.
Not long ago, The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development's E-commerce and Development Report 2003 devoted a chapter on FOSS. In discussing the role of FOSS for the developing world, in the context of Internet and communication technologies, it states:
"The increasing adoption of FOSS by major corporations and institutions in the developed world is creating export opportunities for customized software from nascent IT industries in developing countries.. . . the report recommends that developing countries consider adopting FOSS as a means of bridging the digital divide."
This short quote recognizes several things. First, it is another source confirming that enterprises are serious in their demand for Free and open source software. Second, it makes a recommendation to developing countries looking to improve trade. But this recommendation doesn't need to be heeded by developing countries alone. The cooperative nature of FOSS communities is the advantage FOSS provides. Let's look at some of the elements involved.
This is Part Two of a two-part note.
Part One concerned the Free and open source software (FOSS) origin and rapid evolution as manifested in global customer demand trends.
Enterprise Interest in FOSS
For what reasons might an organization be interested in open source software? One of the more frequently touted benefits is cost. The proprietary crowd has put a fair amount of publicity into studies that argue open source actually results in a higher total cost of ownership. These studies consider a number of factors like paying for support, upgrade and maintenance costs, licensing fees, and implementation and migration costs; often these become points of contention. In these areas there is a likely cost advantage presented by open source and the following highlights a number of reasons why, at least in principle, an advantage with FOSS is possible.
A proprietary software product is often sold in a way that puts certain post-purchase restrictions on its usage. Namely, when it is sold such that each license is treated like a unit of a good (a box of software or instance of software). Many proprietary software vendors would say that software licensing entails the purchaser/user to pay attention to requirements on deployment eligibility, transferring software to others, sometimes even downgrading the software version. Thus, an organization could have to pay for a license every time it needs an instance of the software installed.
Open source products can sometimes be purchased in a similar way but open source licensing does not necessarily treat the software like a unit of a good that must be attained over and over. Rather, open source licenses recognize the infinite reproducibility of software and do not prevent a company from making and distributing its own copies of the software. Thus on a large scale rollout, a company could realize major cost savings just in licensing.
Migration and Vendor Lock-In
Migration costs could be an issue for switching to FOSS platforms. It may become a significant expense to migrate from one type of system to another (considering the data, user training, and other changes). A proprietary system however, still brings with it a range of costs when upgrading from one version to the next (often similar sorts of data migration, user training, and maintenance work). Upgrading open source software does not necessarily entail the vendor lock-in that proprietary solutions do. From the customer's standpoint, there may be multiple sources that can provide patches and updates. Consider operating systems—there are many distributions (varieties) of Linux. Each distribution has its own characteristic strengths and weaknesses but is essentially capable of providing the same functionality. Besides, why does an organization consider migrating to open source in the first place? Some reasons often cited include benefits in up-time stability (the famous Netcraft uptime surveys are one example, showing that the most reliable web host providers are usually based on open source platforms), security, and improved safety from viral infections, which over time could ultimately outweigh FOSS migration expenses.
Paying for knowledgeable support personnel might seem like a current point in favor of some proprietary solutions. Considering just server operating systems, professionals with Microsoft certifications probably outnumber those with some type of certified Linux training. As demand for Linux continues to increase, demand for Linux support ought to increase, so the number of trained professionals will need to grow. FOSS providing companies such as Red Hat and Novell both offer specialized training and certifications, plus there are independent organizations offering training, such as the Linux Professional Institute.
It is disingenuous though, to only mention the number of trained professionals when considering support. The issue is how does a company get ongoing support when it has a problem? As mentioned previously, licensing is unlikely to be as reliable a mode of revenue for an open source software provider as it is for a proprietary one. Both sorts of vendor (proprietary and open source) offer support services but this is an area where open source providers often focus for their revenue. In an open source community, whether from the core software project, a value-added reseller, or other development teams, ongoing support and development are a specialty.
Rapid and custom updates—if an organization requires a feature, bug fix, security hole repair, or special customization, the customer organization is not beholden to one vendor to satisfy its needs. Customers have the option of accomplishing these things in-house, by hiring consultants or other specialists, or through service agreements with the company that furnished the software in the first place. In any of these cases the organization benefits from the work of the whole project's community of users, resellers, and developers that participate in the FOSS development.
Trust in the Software's Future
Finally, consider future-proof security on the software investment. If a FOSS provider goes out of business, customers have less to fear about their own future use of the software they obtained because the source code is freely available and can live on, in spite of the original developers' demise. This is precisely what happened with an important element (Nautilus from the deceased company, Eazel) of the Linux Gnome desktop environment.
A proprietary vendor on the other hand may need to set up a software escrow plan to reassure its clients. If a client sets up an escrow agreement with its proprietary software vendor, it still doesn't have access to the type of community that persists to support and develop open source software even in the absence of the software's original maintainer (vendor or core development team).
Software compatibility and version problems can be reduced via FOSS. Unlike proprietary systems, which may lead to fragmentation (such as the Unix systems from IBM, Sun, AT&T, etc.) or version/upgrade incompatibilities (such as Microsoft-based applications which sometimes cannot be used or migrated from one version of Windows to the next). It is the very fact that no-one company or person can prohibit access to the source code of the FOSS application that allows it to consistently be made compatible with the many various offshoots of itself.
Why Would a Company Want to Develop Open Source Software?
A significant point from the perspective of a company with a business based on Free and open source software is that it cannot expect to sell the software based on the exact business model as a company selling closed source/proprietary software. By having the source code freely available, whenever a competitor, customer, or community of developers improves the code, the vendor benefits because it, like everyone else, can adopt the upgrades and the software improvements. However, that means vendors cannot always compete on something like a feature-set alone—everyone could potentially offer the same features.
Companies tend to position themselves as experts in the area of particular open source projects and then work with their clients to provide the types of things they need the software to do (sponsored development, customization, migration, and implementation services). Or perhaps, a company with expertise in a particular area of software offers other types of support and services (around that project) to its customers. IBM, for example, offers hardware and implementation services.
In the case of a company providing hardware and implementation services, it's relatively simple to see the sense that open source can make. If you're making money off of the labor involved in your engagements or support services, or you're selling a physical good (say a corporate search appliance rack server), by participating in the FOSS project's community you leverage a massive amount of high-quality software at a low cost.
Another example of how a vendor can benefit by providing open source applications would include vendors that take existing open source software projects and develop customized offshoots, which address specialized needs. Take a company that would like to provide a specialized CRM system for the health care industry. Such a company can stand on the shoulders of an open source CRM project that has no interest in specializing its project for the health care industry. The company can then customize the application as a solution for its health care clients. The company benefits by not having to build its application from scratch and may even receive additional help in its area from others that need similar requirements.
Lastly, even if a vendor is not providing its own software on an open source basis, it can leverage the cost savings, support providers, and reliability of existing FOSS technologies. It can offer competitive pricing on its supply chain management solution to clients because the solution supports open source servers, databases, etc.
Considerations before Making a Selection Based on FOSS
As I mentioned previously, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and Open Source Initiative (OSI) require, in their definitions that the source code to FOSS be available. The way that source code is kept freely available is through a license, the most common of which is the GNU General Public License (GPL) developed by the FSF. These licenses all stipulate different requirements on the treatment of the source code availability, so one cannot make many generalizations on the requirements of FOSS insofar as when or how people can access the source code. One must look at the individual FOSS license a project is using. Some lists of common FOSS licenses (like the GPL, Mozilla Public License, Apple Public Source License, or the BSD license) are available at the FSF license page or the OSI license page.
Review the services offered by leading companies in the open source operating system space. Novell (SUSE), Red Hat, and Progeny all emphasize the types of implementation, migration, support, and customization services they offer. Novell points out (at length) processes involved for a successful enterprise Linux migration. Red Hat promotes its support subscription service to keep its customers up-to-date with patches, recent software updates, and expert support facilities. Progeny wants to customize and modify a Linux system specific to its customers needs.
In every case, those companies are capitalizing on, and participating in the FOSS project communities that produce GNU/Linux systems. Some companies argue that FOSS methodologies work fine for commodity systems but will not work for more specialized enterprise solutions. That doesn't seem to be the case though, as recently enterprise applications are beginning to climb out of the woodwork (a few examples include GNU Enterprise, ComPiere, Anteil, Project/Open, SugarCRM, JetBox CMS, MamboCMS, and the Zope application server).
While researching an open source solution or related engagement consider the following items:
What kind of pre-installation and post-installation support does the maintainer or partner offer?
Analysis of current systems and processes (previous to a new implementation or migration), ongoing support, and service level agreements, are all important to successful operations.
Does the open source project maintainer (vendor) work through local implementation partners? Vertical industry specialists?
Some open source projects or else vendors that offer open source, prefer to let their partners focus on consulting, implementation, and integration services. These vendors support their partners but feel the partners are best able to support clients in their own immediate geographic regions. If that is the case, there are some questions to ask about how the partner interacts with the core project.
- How does the partner contribute to the core project?
- Is there a partner certification program?
- Is there a training program?
- What is the partner's expertise with Free and open source software?
- What kind of geographic presence and industry experience is offered?
Is there on-line availability of project tracking?
As a company chooses to use open source, it is important to gauge the open source project's viability. Users of open source applications need to be reassured about a given project's future. Thus visibility into the project roadmap, user issues, bug fixes, and feature requests is necessary for clients to verify that the project maintainers actively coordinate development on the community's goals. Open source projects that run astray of their goals or alienate their developer community are not likely to instil the trust necessary to continue as a successful project.
This article reviewed the ideas behind what makes a system Free or open source software, and touched on platform demand trends for the past year. The key elements of the article should show that based on TEC's research of demand trends, recommendations from other organizations, and widely espoused FOSS principles, there are both recognized benefits for organizations adopting FOSS and thus growing opportunities for vendors to provide FOSS technologies in their offerings.
This concludes Part Two of a two-part note.
Part One concerned the Free and open source software (FOSS) origin and rapid evolution as manifested in global customer demand trends.
About this Article
TEC's Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Evaluation Center provides impartial analyses of enterprise solutions that support FOSS platforms such as Linux. To complement the evaluation center, TEC is augmenting its research coverage of Free and open source service providers and solutions.
Please send comments or inquiries to the author, Joshua Chalifour, at firstname.lastname@example.org.