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Listening to Amy Niersbach talk about the deployment of open source software in local government systems in Chicago it is not hard to see why the spread of open source has been one of the biggest technology trends in recent years.
“We save a heap of money,” says the platform architect for the City of Chicago. “On hardware, licensing, operating costs – and performance is good.”
The Windy City is turning to open source – in this case Red Hat’s Linux operating system – to replace expensive proprietary programs, so freeing money to spend in other areas.
It is not just the cash-strapped public sector that sees benefits from open source.
In the business world, CIOs are increasingly concerned about price rises, unnecessary features and the seemingly built-in obsolescence of proprietary software which forces them to upgrade according to a schedule set by the vendor.
In response, many organisations are taking a closer look at open source software as a cheaper and restriction-free alternative to conventional proprietary programs.
What they find is that the business case for open source is not always clear. The “switching costs” of changing can outweigh the savings obtained by not having to pay licence fees – the principal attraction of open source.
Indeed, organisations that hope open source will slash their IT budgets can be disappointed, analysts warn.
“It looks like you get great savings with open source but they are all up-front savings on licence fees,” says Clive Longbottom, an analyst with Quocirca, a UK-based consultancy.
The other IT costs – personnel, support and maintenance – do not go away when you start using open source software. Indeed, they can increase if the project goes wrong or consultants have to be brought in because there is no in-house expertise in open source.
For this reason, many organisations are taking a softly, softly approach to open source. Their first project typically involves using Linux for a non-critical application while keeping their mainstream applications running on proprietary systems.
While purists may frown, experts say this co-existence approach makes a lot of sense.
“In the past, people looked at the choice of operating system as if it was some religious war,” says Zack Urlocker, vice-president of marketing at MySQL, the best-known vendor of open source database software.
“But we are now seeing that operating systems can co-exist and this co-existence trend is very important for open source.”
The City of Chicago believes in co-existence, but does not really have much choice.
Some of its applications have not been certified for Linux and so it is obliged to keep running them on proprietary Sun Solaris systems. However, it hopes to have the rest of the applications, running on Linux within 18 months.
Its first open source project was a vehicle licensing application which formerly ran on an ageing mainframe.
Ms Niersbach estimates that in this case the choice of Linux over Solaris saved more than $150,000 just on hardware costs. The application now runs on cheap Intel-based servers from Hewlett-Packard instead of expensive Sun boxes. As well as being cheaper, the HP servers are more powerful, so fewer are needed. That translates into big savings on software licensed on a per-server basis.
Linux frequently steals the headlines but open source is about much more than operating systems. There are open source alternatives to other types of programs including application servers (JBoss), databases (mySQL) and web servers (Apache).
These programs together constitute the “stack”, the collection of programs which sit on top of the operating system but below the applications.
Many experts believe that open source software is now sufficiently mature and stable to be considered for use throughout the stack. “I see the whole stack becoming open source in the coming years,” says Paul Cormier, executive vice-president of engineering at Red Hat.
HP, a recent convert, now supports open source offerings such JBoss or mySQL alongside mainstream proprietary products, offering round-the-clock support.
“Its not just the lower cost that appeals to businesses but heir quality,” says Efrain Rovira, HP’s director of open source marketing.
Not surprisingly, the likes of Oracle, the leading database vendor, and BEA Systems, which specialises in application servers, argue that the open source alternatives to their proprietary products are too weak to be taken seriously and organisations that have evaluated them tend to agree.
The open source movement now has its sights set on applications software. There are at least two open source alternatives to Microsoft Office. This article was written on one of them, 602PC Suite.
There are also open source offerings that compete with such giants as SAP and Siebel in customer relationship management (SugarCRM) and inventory management (OpenMFG).
Few people believe these fledgling products will soon pose a serious challenge to the mainstream proprietary offerings. But they once said the same about Linux.