Still don't think open source hurts commercial software? Guess again

Enterprises in cloud environments are mostly opting for open source Java app servers over commercial counterparts

Just a few years ago, speculation ran rampant that open source software, as in freely available software, would hurt the software market overall by eliminating the need to pay for software. Why buy what you can get for free? This would in turn mean less money in software, with developers and software companies unable to make money.

Counterarguments arose that there would always be a need for value-added commercial software and that even commercial software vendors benefit from technologies they can get via open source. But new research from Web application performance company New Relic does support the notion that open source is eliminating the need for commercial software, at least in the realm of Java application servers in the cloud computing space.

New Relic studied more than 1,000 of its cloud-oriented enterprise customers to get feedback on how Java is being used. New Relic found IBM's commercial WebSphere application server was used just 1.66 percent of the time and Oracle's commercial application server, WebLogic, was used in 0.51 percent of cases. (Surely, Oracle had better numbers in mind when it acquired WebLogic in its purchase of BEA Systems for $8.5 billion in 2008.)

Open source alternatives fared much better. New Relic found that 54 percent of those surveyed use Apache Tomcat servers, 16 percent use Jetty, and nearly 10 percent use JBoss. GlassFish, the open source application server Oracle inherited from Sun Microsystems, was used in about 3 percent of installations.

Another 18 percent of those surveyed were developers using small application servers for testing purposes only. New Relic's surveyed customers were in the business software, e-commerce, consumer Internet, gaming, and social/Web 2.0 industries, including large IT organizations like AT&T, Comcast, and the University of Phoenix.

Forrester Research analyst John Rymer dismisses New Relic's claim about the supposed death of the two commercial application servers. Nonetheless, Forrester sees barriers for customers using WebLogic and WebSphere in cloud computing, which is New Relic's customer focus. "They are real -- and real barriers to Java's future growth," he says. "If New Relic is suggesting that WebLogic and WebSphere must evolve to be relevant in the cloud, we agree. If these products fail to evolve, their future revenue potential will be seriously constrained."

The major impediment for both WebSphere and WebLogic is licensing, Rymer says. "How can customers account for temporary usage of app server instances in OS VMs in a per-core license model? IBM is more flexible on this point than Oracle, but it is still hard. Everyone uses open source because it is cheap and easy to manage the rights to use." There are also technical barriers, such as WebLogic not supporting multitenancy, Rymer says.

Meanwhile, Web development is shifting away from Java in favor of languages like Ruby, JavaScript, and PHP, eliminating the need for a Java application server from any provider, Rymer notes.

He stills sees a future for WebLogic and WebSphere, such as in applications that require them. And commercial application servers still offer benefits in enterprise applications, such as better management and development tools, as well as some advanced features not available in the open source competitors.

Oracle did not respond to a request for comment about New Relic's conclusions. But IBM said sales of the WebSphere product line grew about 50 percent in 2011.

It is clear, though, that Java application servers have become commoditized. That means IT is going to have to justify the use of commercial products when there are so many open source alternatives available.

This story, "Still don't think open source hurts commercial software? Guess again," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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