IT executives and developers on open source collision course

The software selection process is increasingly pitting developers against IT executives, but the conflict is avoidable

Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond's LinuxCon keynote kicked off with the announcement that open source had crossed the IT adoption chasm. Hammond's data, drawn from five Forrester, Eclipse Foundation, and "Dr. Dobbs" surveys over the past two years, showed that nearly 80 percent of organizations are using open source software in IT development projects.

The survey results also found that IT executives were much more pragmatic about increasing open source usage and that software developers -- who tend to favor open source usage -- are increasingly important to product selection decisions. Thus, there's a potential for a collision between the business' mentality of "use what's most appropriate," and developers' mentality of "we want open source everywhere possible."

[ InfoWorld's Savio Rodrigues explains when you should open-source your internal apps | Keep up with the latest open source trends and news in InfoWorld's Technology: Open Source newsletter. ]

Expanding open source usage isn't a top priority

Yet when IT executives were asked, "How important are each of the following business goals to your internal IT organization when making software decisions?" their responses were lukewarm. In the 2009 survey, 47 percent of IT decisionmakers ranked it 1 or 2 (out of 5), implying that expanding the usage of open source is not a business goal for their organization when making software decisions. In 2008, 37 percent of decisionmakers ranked open source as a software selection criterion as 1 or 2, indicating the use of open source had become a less-important goal. Similarly, the percentage of decisionmakers who thought the use of open source was an important software selection criteria fell from 9 to 8 percent in that period.

Forrester survey results

Keep in mind that the survey question states, "when making software decisions." As such, an IT organization might not have open source usage as an explicit factor during software selection, and yet select an open source product for a given project because the open source tool happens to be the best for the job. And an organization that is intentionally trying to increase open source adoption will still pick traditional applications where they are the best choice for specific projects.

The survey results indicate that the vast majority of IT decisionmakers select software based on its ability to meet their business requirements, not whether the product is open source or not. That's pragmatic, and is very much in line with customers I've interacted with, or whose stories I've been told by sales colleagues at IBM.

What's changed is that the "religious factor" around open source has diminished. Even as little as a year ago, customers were much more likely to state, "we're moving everything to open source" or "we'll never touch an open source product." Today, it's common to use a mixture of open source and closed source products.

If your company is in the minority that has rejected either open source or closed source software in its selection processes, you must ask why your competitors are making a different decision.

Are developers the new king-makers?

Another key finding from Hammond is that the software decisionmaking process is tipping toward developers, away from IT executives. Hammond states, "More than ever, developers can block -- or significantly aid the adoption of software!"

Developers are much more willing to recommend products that they are already productive with. This has been a boon for open source products that are free for developers to use and gain experience with. It's no surprise that traditional software vendors now offer developer editions of their respective software at no charge, to match their open source competition.

But Hammond notes that IT executives are beginning to reassert control over the software selection process. As such, Hammond provides the following advice for software vendors: "To win, you must drive adoption and affirmation through developers, and purchases through management."

This will be an interesting power struggle to watch play out across IT departments. It's important to again recall the lack of importance that IT executives put into "increasing open source usage" as a business goal. Software vendors, open source or not, have an opportunity to secure the IT executive's selection vote if their products meet the needs of developers and other key stakeholders, such as the operations teams and administrators, while integrating well with existing infrastructure. Similarly, software developers who propose product selections that address stakeholder needs across the entire IT lifecycle, not just development, stand to gain credibility with IT executives.

Who holds the balance of power in the software selection process at your company?

Follow me on Twitter at SavioRodrigues. I should state: "The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies, or opinions."

This article, "IT executives and developers on open source collision course," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Rodrigues et al.'s Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com.

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