A Fresh Look at Open Source

By Blane Warrene
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Sometimes all it takes is a step back from a technology sector to have a fresh (or refreshed) perspective.

I have spent the last several weeks immersed in a substantial enterprise project that is one hundred percent not open source. It is the exact opposite – built on a comprehensively proprietary platform from top to bottom. I am pleased to disclose it will do just fine (of course – I was working on it – right!?). However – it also gave me a clearer view of where open source can and will succeed in the enterprise – and the obstacles it faces.

Note: I have been working with open source since 1998 – however – with proprietary platforms since 1992 – and quite honestly both pay the bills. ;>)

Now – being under an NDA (a fancy acronym for ‘keep thine mouth shut about the details’) I will not reveal too much. However, it is a fine project that consolidates numerous data sources across the US into one data mart and will ultimately offer a very nice consolidated web application for reporting and other interesting activities. To boot, the company looks to save several million dollars annually in costs associated with formerly managing these disparate data sources.

That said – the costs of sourcing, specifications, prototypes and development could be shaved substantially by way of open source technology. For starters – the platform being used does not have the maturity of some open source options (I am sure you guessed it now), and nowhere near the community documentation and knowledge. Choosing the open source option would shave the time to reach prototype stage and start fine tuning usability, functional specifications and use cases.

Secondly, the group has had to dream up an endless stream of workarounds in interfacing with some vendors being integrated into this complex web solution due to limited **proven** methods with the currently selected platform.

Now before we start arguing make the switch – I was brought in months after the platform was set, initial requirements written and programmers were hired. The project has lurched toward trouble and I am working toward re-steering back on course. So it is not necessarily “switchable” at this point based on commitments, investments and deadlines. However, an iterim post-mortem was held at my request as a sidebar to explore all possible options.

While there was some amazement at the options in using open source, it was considered child’s play and not feasible for this “scale” of project. I found that a little bewildering considering organizations like NASA, the National Security Agency and plenty of enterprises deploying open source in hardcore production environments. That aside, I walked through the arguments for and against. I have found that the problem is clearly one of semantics – cutting through hype and preconceived notions about Linux and open source and understanding its functional capability.

It is a little hard to grasp that a large universe of very capable technical and business folk do not have a firm understanding of open source – but it is quite true. And these are extremely bright and able people who have accomplished plenty without leveraging Linux and open source tools.

So, to return to the beginning (coda for the musicians in th readership), there is a benefit in stepping back once in a while and realizing that the world continues spinning, commerce executes and the sun rises and sets without a glimpse of open source. This should encourage us not only to continue improving the open source tools we use but to invest some energy in explaining our universe more clearly, calmly and continuously to a widening audience.

As a side note, the organization I am working with is now exploring how they could begin a test bed to vet open source possibilities. And it had little to do with dollars even though that stood out to me. It has more to do with flexibility, community resources and time to market. Things to think about.

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  • Welcome back, Blane!

  • One of the biggest hurdles that the open source community need to overcome is the area of support. Large enterprises often seem more willing to part with their dollars because they “know” that if they pickup the phone someone will answer and hopefully give them a solution. Open source requires a paradigm shift in this area for the enterprise market where you go an source the solution yourself, or ask questions in forums and the like. Unfortunately, you are at the whim of the developers as to whether they can be bothered answering you questions or not. Granted a lot of high end open source solutions have very good service levels, but it could be the little guys that are giving the large players a bad image. For example, I’ve only just heard back on two bugs that I submitted for two projects on sourceforge. The gap between logging the issue and getting a response has been an unacceptable 2 years!!! The worst part is that one of the requests was raised against the sourceforge project itself.

    Open source developers have a tendency to concentrate on the program features rather than the business features. Once the community picks up in this area, particularly in support and service levels, I think the markets would more readily accept open source as a viable solution. More often than not, its not the application in question, but the business behind it (or lack of in some cases)