Enterprises break open the proprietary mould

Open source shatters established policies that favour proprietary software packages. Now support and security concerns have been allayed, enterprises are not only finding cost-saving benefits, but also discovering fresh sources of innovation, as Adrian Bridgwater reports

Open source’s welcome embrace of interactive community engagement and its inherent diversity was always going to unsettle the traditional business sector’s approach to software. In the locked-down world of enterprise IT, proprietary behemoths of both hardware and software dominated for more than half a century, so change was never going to happen overnight.

There is no such thing as a “free lunch” and the concept of offering open source applications with no charge to enterprise is no different. Sun Microsystems, despite being primarily known for its server and storage hardware, was also the lead developer and organiser of the Java operating system community. Prior to its acquisition by Oracle in April 2009, Sun’s president and chief executive Jonathan Schwartz used the 2008 JavaOne conference to explain the workings of the open model.

“The software is free but, when you want the support and maintenance, we’ll be there to sell that to you,” he announced.

The same model is found at Red Hat where the firm is a major contributor to the free Fedora Linux operating system project, but also sells Red Hat Enterprise Linux, a supported release for commercial use.

Open source can offer huge benefits, enabling faster innovation and reduced total cost of ownership

The question arises, irrespective of flexibility and control factors, can return on investment (ROI) and total cost of ownership (TCO) actually be improved inside the open computing model?

ROI is always hard to gauge if a firm is moving to Linux and other open platform technologies because a certain amount of training and reskilling will typically be involved. While forced upgrades and product end-of-life announcements may become a less-prevalent feature, licensing and regulatory compliance issues are by no means equally reduced.

TCO is probably easier to analyse as long as we accept the difference between “gratis” versus “libre” and recognise that there is a cost associated with so-called free software. Free Software Foundation and GNU Project founder Richard Stallman famously explained that we should think “Free – as in free speech, not as in free beer”. By this measure, Linux still incurs support costs and a firm will still need to pay for electricity, internet bandwidth, data storage and back-up charges, plus all traditional business costs from equipment insurance to air conditioning.

Enterprises can improve ROI and TCO if open technologies are embraced for their core functional benefits. If a company has a competent set of in-house software developers or a trusted third party working with open source code, then there is an opportunity to react to change and modify software more quickly.

Access to the code gave rise to claims of a lack of robustness in deployments of Linux and its many variants in heavyweight business environments. In the mid-1990s, these perceptions began to change and, predominantly at the server level, open source started to emerge as a viable, adaptable and secure alternative to proprietary solutions.

“Open source software is proven to be secure and reliable for all business functions, including those which handle sensitive and financial customer data,” says Steve George, vice president of products and communications at Canonical. “In fact, many open source organisations specifically target the public sector, such as defence and healthcare, where security is paramount. It’s existence is much, much more prevalent than many people realise.”

As we now move to cloud computing environments, where the so-called virtualisation of hosted computing resources support the needs of IT, open technologies appear to be leading something of a charge. LetterGen, a Belgian supplier of document management software, migrated its virtualised systems from VMware to the fully open source Red Hat Enterprise Virtualisation platform late last year.

Luc Vandergoten, chief executive of LetterGen, explains: “We made the strategic decision to migrate for a variety of reasons but, in particular, we were impressed by Red Hat’s subscription model that has no high up-front licence fees and costs the same each year. We expect the virtualisation guest rights, included in the Red Hat Enterprise Linux subscription, alone to lead to reduced IT-related costs by over 60 per cent.”

While transitioning from closed to open systems is no trivial task, unless this step is taken, businesses risk being left behind

LetterGen used a live migration feature to move to its new infrastructure and it is now able to make efficient use of its virtualisation cluster by moving virtual machines from one host to another without affecting performance. “In addition, the maintenance management functions enable hosts to be upgraded and maintained while the virtual machines are running. The result has been much less downtime and much higher availability,” says Mr Vandergoten.

As open source continues its concerted, but comparatively non-aggressive encroachment across the newly cloud-enabled enterprise, what software application areas are we most likely to see open platforms supporting? Continuing Linux’s proximity to “lower-level”, data-centric functions, open source finds much success when employed to drive elements, such as application servers, software code change management systems and content management systems.

This back-office IT trend is changing though. As open source gets ever closer to users’ desktops, as a Windows or Apple OS X alternative, so it also finds success in the business- function space when used as an enterprise resource planning (ERP) tool, a business process management (BPM) layer, and as an executive-facing business intelligence (BI) tool, often running on a cloud platform.

Spawning a healthy proportion of cloud implementations right now is OpenStack, an infrastructure-as-a-service project initiated by cloud-hosting company Rackspace in collaboration with the US space agency NASA two years ago. Subsequently, the cloud technology stack developed by the two companies has been open sourced and handed over to its community of users for further development.

Backed by more than 180 technology vendors, OpenStack has been successful in terms of paving the way for open computing platforms in the cloud arena. Website and web application testing company Soasta used Rackspace’s Cloud Servers product on the OpenStack platform to provide customers, including the London 2012 Olympic Committee, with its Cloud-Test service.

This service enables companies to analyse their site and application performance in response to simulated high-traffic bursts. In providing this service, Tom Lounibos, president and chief executive of Soasta, placed his faith in the open cloud.

“What OpenStack does for us is to give us options – and really powerful options – because so many companies are now moving toward OpenStack. We see this as an explosion of capacity and locations, which are very important to us. We think OpenStack is a very powerful player in the cloud community and will be the future of cloud computing as we go forward,” he says.

An important caveat is that, even where open source solutions are deployed at the enterprise level, some customers will work in environments where implementation of commercially supported code is mandatory because they are bound by a stipulated level of risk due to the sensitive nature of their work.

Application deployment scenarios, such as those found in aerospace, government or healthcare, for example, will need their software code more firmly locked down than others. Open software is built with inherently dynamic software code that is, by its very nature, changeable and customisable. In environments where compliance and governance concerns demand it, a hardened version of “static code” is available – once again at a price.

Proof that open source can be implemented successfully in the aerospace sector is found in travel transaction processing company Amadeus. The firm transitioned to open platforms and says that, even in its demanding high-volume transaction processing environment, open systems have proven not just fit-for-purpose, but also critical to helping the business transform how it operates.

“Open source can offer huge benefits, enabling faster innovation and reduced total cost of ownership. While transitioning from closed to open systems is no trivial task, unless this step is taken, businesses risk being left behind as their competitors capitalise on the new possibilities this offers,” says Hervé Couturier, executive vice president of development for the Amadeus IT Group.

While we can almost certainly define the current decade as a significant inflexion point for the wide-scale implementation of open source technologies from the cloud to the desktop, what role Microsoft or Apple will play is harder to predict. Microsoft has made its own not inconsiderable forays into open source and has been partnering for the sake of interoperability with open platform players for some years now.

Futurists and open source evangelists alike argue that that the future is open for software, hardware and the platforms that we use to build both our information technology and everything from bicycles to motor cars.

“Today it’s common to see open source technology powering all areas of the enterprise right from infrastructure to business-critical applications and the desktop,” says Canonical’s Mr George. “Because open source is prime for web, intranet, file and server, it means that it’s possible for new and large-scale web-based organisations, such as Quora and Instagram, to build and run their entire business on it.”

As we stand today, it is 100 years between the invention of the autolathe process to manufacture standard component engineering parts, such as the standard screw, and the subsequent invention and construction of the jet airliner. Common open standards that drive innovation always win in the end.