The subject of open source software used to polarise audiences into two distinct camps: those with an almost religious zeal for the movement and who were blind to its shortcomings; and those who were deeply suspicious of something that claimed to be both ‘free’ and enterprise-capable. But the debate has moved on, and among the delegates at Information Age’s most recent readers’ lunch, there was a discernable shift in attitude, with most of those round the table showing they were pragmatic about the use of open source.
Adoption levels varied widely. The head of software development at a major investment bank outlined how his organisation had been a long term user of open source – the Linux operating system, the Apache web server, the Eclipse development environment, and several other products. Others had incorporated open source software in specific projects. The IT director of a car leasing company said the use of the JBoss application server on a major project had saved the organisation significant expense and had proved to be robust.
However, aside from lowering costs, the use of open source has brought other major benefits. “For one, it creates greater enthusiasm among developers,” said one participant. “They feel they are part of a wider effort to build great software.” So when they need a driver for a specialist peripheral, for example, either they can find it through the open source community or write it themselves and get the satisfaction that their software is widely appreciated, he said. There are other advantages too, he added: by offering the opportunity to get involved in open source developments his organisation is able to attract the highest calibre graduates.
The open source process also makes many products more secure, some delegates suggested. If a security hole is found, a whole army of developers gets to work on fixing it and posts the patch to the web. With commercial products, it may be weeks or even months before a relevant patch is released.
That kind of appreciation of the role of open source is becoming widespread. IT advisory group Forrester Research has tracked the rise of open source software within the enterprise. “Customers who are using open source software no longer have to worry about being accused of being on the fringe,” says Michael Goulde, an analyst at Forrester.
His point was echoed by the head of IT at a large international non-profit organisation at the Information Age lunch: “It has reached the stage where virtually every organisation will find they have some open source software somewhere in their infrastructure.”
But no-one sees open source software as any kind of panacea – a fact highlighted recently by enterprise software titan, SAP. According to the president of its technology group, Shai Aggasi, real innovation in software development only comes from the proprietary sector. “We all talk about how great Linux is. But if you look at the most innovative desktop today, Microsoft’s Vista is not copying Linux, it is copying Apple.”
Others point out that open source has yet to allay concerns from senior management over its suitability for large production environments. “As soon as you mention open source in financial services, management get very twitchy. They don’t want to go to the board when there is a major outage and tell them that the problem lies with some free software they downloaded from the web,” said the head of IT and projects at an asset management group.
So has open source deployment hit some kind of glass ceiling? Hardly, said the delegates. “The associated cost savings are too great to ignore. In hardware terms we have saved between 30% and 50% by using Linux,” claimed the head of software at an investment bank.
As that suggests, the business opportunity is there for extending the scope of open source software across the enterprise. But rather than adopting an ideological position on the software, organisations are better served by taking a strategic approach, says Stephen Downes of IT services group Atos Origin. “Building a business case for open source software can sometimes be very hard – trying to add up what costs should be attributed to support, hardware, training, etc. But that is the only way to take sensible decisions.”