Open opportunities

It is a community still dominated by ponytails and free-flowing anti-Microsoft vitriol. But cut through the passionate debates about licensing agreements and patent disputes and open source software is fast making the transition from pioneer status to a viable mainstream alternative.

Although it is still found chiefly within the now mature ‘LAMP’ technologies of Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP, the success of application software such as Mozilla FireFox and OpenOffice is boosting open source’s visibility throughout the entire organisation. And the endorsement for open source software is not just coming from the open source community.

Many organisations are now using a combination of open source and proprietary software via the product mix offered by more traditional closed-source vendors. IBM, for example, uses the Apache Geronimo server inside its Websphere Community product and Eclipse Foundation technologies inside its Rational Development tool set, while business software vendor Sage intends to introduce the MySQL open source database into its small business range of accounting products.

Other companies such as Sun Microsystems are taking a more extreme view. The company has not only open sourced a number of its core projects, including its Solaris operating system and Java programming language, but also the building of the architecture code for its UltraSPARC processor. Their reason: it will make the porting of operating systems such as Linux, middleware and applications to its UltraSPARC T1 processor easier.

The perceived low cost of deploying open source software remains a major reason for its use. An average of 72% of European firms claim lower total cost of ownership and lower acquisition costs as the key advantages over commercial software, according to a survey by analyst firm Forrester Research. Unlike proprietary software, organisations are not charged an upfront fee for using open source software and it has encouraged a culture of downloading and testing applications first, before committing to a deeper implementation.

This does not imply that using open source software will necessarily decrease costs – and there have been several cases where the software has been dumped in favour of proprietary applications. Birmingham City Council, for example, intended to deploy the Linux desktop and operating system across 1,500 PCs in its city libraries, but in November 2006 it switched to Microsoft’s Windows XP after finding it a cheaper option.

Invariably, any upfront savings on licensing fees are diverted towards support and maintenance contracts. These type of contracts have become big revenue generators for global service vendors such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Unisys and Sun, alongside open source specialists Novell and Red Hat. Indeed, their services – such as ensuring that bug fixes available in the open source community are packaged into patches for delivery on a predictable schedule – are essential where software is deployed in a mission-critical environment.

According to Gartner, open source software will account for 24% of a $673 billion market for software and professional services by 2010 – something that has been attracting the interest of other global players. In October, for example, Oracle announced its intention to distribute its own version of the Linux operating system – one that will be very similar to Red Hat’s version, but that promises to undercut their support prices by half. And in November, Microsoft, often seen as the enemy of the open source movement, announced that it will recommend Novell’s Suse distribution of Linux to its own customers that demand a mixed Windows and Linux environment.

Yet aside from the successes enjoyed by Linux and Apache, open source software still only represents a fraction of the total software market. According to Gartner, open source software represents about 7% of today’s $172 billion software market, rising to 15% of a $277 billion market by 2010.

OpenOffice, for example, boasts an impressive array of sponsors, including Sun Microsystems, which initially donated the source code of its StarOffice application to the project. Other supporters include Novell, Red Hat, Debian and Intel.

But the project is already six years old and in spite of downloads exceeding 70 million, as well as being included as a standard feature with many Linux distributions, it has failed to touch Microsoft’s dominant position in the desktop productivity market. Some organisations, such as the Central Scotland Police, recently reversed a decision to use OpenOffice and are back using Microsoft’s Office, citing compatibility issues and support costs as the main reason.

Yet this has not deterred the supporters. As open source software continues to find its way into the organisation, it is likely to be spurred on by the next advance in software: service-oriented architecture. According to a survey by analyst group Forrester Research, there is a strong correlation between adopters of SOA and open source software because the componentised nature of open source makes it an appealing alternative for the building blocks needed for a SOA environment.

This is a strong endorsement for open source software and, as SOA gains traction, open mission-critical applications are likely to be more of a success than what’s been available thus far.


Lee Biggins

Lee Biggins developed as an entrepreneur selling cold cans of fizzy drinks to fishermen on hot days, to running his own car washing empire as a teenager. This spirit carried through to the developmental...

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