If you think you can easily whittle down the best open source software to a manageable number, you'll soon discover that you can't do it without a great deal of hair pulling, nail biting, and gnashing of teeth. There are just too many excellent tools. Even if you give up on a "manageable" number and go whole hog -- say, a top 100, which is certainly doable -- you'll still face too many hard decisions and too many arguments. You'll be looking for a way out.
To bring you this year's 40 top open source products -- our 2009 Bossie winners -- we pulled a couple of fast ones. Our first inspired dodge was to come up with the InfoWorld Open Source Hall of Fame. There's a certain number of obviously great open source solutions (we settled on 36) that deserve a hall of fame, and though our annual Bossies selection regularly passed over most of these because of their sheer obviousness, a few inevitably complicated the process. Erecting the hall of fame allowed us to honor these inconvenient legends -- the Linuxes, BSDs, Sendmails, and Snorts -- once and for all.
[ See the slideshows of the 2009 InfoWorld Bossie Award winners: The best of open source developer tools | The best of open source enterprise software | The best of open source networking software | The best of open source platforms and middleware. ]
Our second shortcut was to omit desktop productivity tools and focus strictly on enterprise software, application development tools, networking and network management software, and platforms and middleware. We covered some of the top desktop productivity tools in "The best free open source software for Windows" -- including Linux standards such as OpenOffice.org and Firefox -- but there's so much more to talk about. Once you start down this road, you have to walk a long way.
Desktop OSS, briefly
OK, we'll just mention a few. We'd have to pick GIMP, the open source Photoshop alternative, and Blender, a formerly commercial 3-D graphics editor that was purchased by the community and made freely available through the GPL. That gets a big thumbs-up. There's also Inkscape, the vector graphics illustration program, and ImageMagick, a very cool scriptable tool used for mass graphics manipulation. On the audio/video front, no doubt the excellent Audacity audio editor and the VLC media player take a prize. VLC is also a very good streaming video server that supports both uni- and multicast.
And that's just graphics and multimedia. We'd also have to explore all the open source utilities available, like the Handbrake DVD ripper and the Growl notification system, and whether to include software like LinuxMCE, a home automation controller (think lights, cameras, thermostats, media centers), or Musix, a Debian-based distribution that's chock-full of top-notch software for musical composers and performers. Not to mention all of the open source browsers, and maybe even variants of OpenOffice.org. Should Google Chrome win a Bossie?
(Should we include games too? Do you remember that old arcade game called Battlezone with the wire frame tanks? BZFlag is like Battlezone for the 21st century. Highly recommended.)
We're going to dodge all of these questions, at least for now, and stick with InfoWorld's traditional sweet spots of serious business software and serious tools for IT professionals. Thus, the 40 Bossie winners we set here before you include the best free (and sometimes hybrid) open source we know for building and running Web, mobile, and even cloud-based data processing applications; managing and securing business networks; migrating and integrating enterprise data; building and integrating Web services; and meeting business needs for salesforce automation, customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning, reporting and BI, and business process management.
The iPhone, Android, Palm webOS, BlackBerry, and their app stores have made mobile application development all the rage in the past year, and 2009 marks the first year we award Bossies in that arena: to the PhoneGap development framework and the WebKit browser engine.
Building applications for large-scale, distributed data processing isn't a new thing, but it's becoming more common as organizations try to come to grips with huge volumes of intelligence-packed data (think Facebook's Web logs, for example) and Amazon EC2 and other clouds make it more practical and affordable to do so.
Hadoop and Hive are tools for processing data collections in the terabyte and petabyte range. Hadoop provides a framework that makes it relatively simple to unleash parallel algorithms on large data sets. Hive, which is erected atop Hadoop, fools the underlying distributed file system into seeing tables (rather than stream-accessed files) and lets users execute SQL-like queries against those tables.
Eclipse is a fine IDE in its own right, and some of us have used it repeatedly to build and debug Java applications. But this year Eclipse wins a Bossie for its Web Services Tools plug-in, particularly the Web Services Explorer, which is invaluable in debugging Web services applications. Point the Explorer at a service's WSDL, and it will enumerate all the services available at that endpoint. Launch a request at the service; the Explorer captures the response and displays it either in raw or structured form.
The NetBeans IDE takes our Bossie, thanks to what may be its best release ever. While most free IDEs have stood still or been adding noncore features, NetBeans 6.7 hewed closely to its mission of providing developers with an IDE that works fast and well with multiple languages. This release boosts support for Ruby and JRuby, significantly advances its Groovy capabilities, expands its C/C++ capabilities, and enables unit testing in PHP. It has also expanded project-level tools with built-in support for Maven and seamless integration with projects hosted at Kenai.com, including SCM and Jira interoperability.
Another repeat winner is JBoss Drools, the free open source rival to business rule management systems from IBM/ILOG, Fair Isaac, Oracle, Pega Systems, and others. The great irony behind the "business logic" of business applications is that it is impossible for businesspeople to understand. Rulebase engines such as Drools are designed to change that, presenting business users with an English-like decision language and views into the rules (spreadsheets, flowcharts, and so on) that they can readily understand.
Finally, a Bossie also to OpenStreetMap, an open source version of popular mapping services like Google Maps and MapQuest. OpenStreetMap holds mapping parties for areas where it doesn't have good mapping data. Because all the geolocation data comes from volunteers, it can be shared and reused in ways that Google and other commercial mappers don't allow. It's an ambitious and well-organized project that you don't have to be a developer to help out.
Platforms and middleware
There's a big new buzzword in town, so service-oriented architecture and enterprise integration aren't on as many tongues these days. But even if obscured by clouds, application and data integration needs never go away, and these are needs that the open source world is especially well equipped to meet.
Two leading lights of open source SOA are MuleSource and WSO2. The Mule ESB takes our prize for the finest enterprise service bus in the open source pantheon, while WSO2 receives a Bossie for its Carbon framework, the basis of a completely componentized SOA platform.
We award a pair of data integration solutions as well. Talend Open Studio has everything one would look for in a traditional enterprise data integration platform: batch delivery, transforms, ETL (extract, transform, and load), data governance, and a strong set of connectivity adapters. At the same time it keeps pace with important trends with such features as change data capture, metadata support, federated views, and SOA-based access to data services.
Jitterbit is a lighter-weight and extensible point solution that is just the ticket for one-off data migration projects. Able to shortcut such projects by weeks, Jitterbit makes simple work of configuring source and target specifications with its form-based wizards. It may be the most uncomplicated tool available to get data from one place to another.
Powering nearly 4 percent of the world's Web sites and growing, the Nginx Web server argues that lighter, smaller, and faster -- than Apache -- is better, and there are several reasons to agree. Lighter, smaller, faster, and easier is the formula behind Turnkey Linux, which preconfigures popular server stacks (LAMP, Tomcat, Ruby) and applications (Drupal, Joomla, WordPress) with a core configuration of Ubuntu to produce ready-to-run software appliances that can be easily installed on bare metal or in a virtual machine.
Bossies also go to three virtualization solutions. You may know Xen as the hypervisor in the free (as in beer) Citrix XenServer and enterprise Linux distributions, or OpenVZ as the kernel of Virtuozzo, the not-free (as in beer or speech) container-based virtualization solution from Parallels. Both can be used and useful without the elaborate management consoles these vendors provide with the commercial products.
The third virtualization tool is VirtualBox, backed by Sun Microsystems. It too is available in both the open source and an enterprise edition. The free version lacks a few features found in the commercial product, the worst omission being USB support. Nevertheless, VirtualBox is probably the best way to test out a Linux distribution before installing it, certainly if you want to install software on that distribution beyond what you'll find on a LiveCD version. In addition, if you want to develop and test a multimachine client-server system, you can run multiple VMs on a single system and wire them all together through VirtualBox's virtual LAN.
Networking and nework management
Two winners in this category will surprise no one, as Cacti and Nagios have been staples of network monitoring for years. Cacti is the current standard-bearer of open source network graphing; if a device or service returns numeric data, then it can probably be integrated into Cacti. Nagios, a mature monitoring framework backed by a very active community, draws on a huge collection of plug-ins to keep tabs on virtually anything that talks to the network.
A newer development is the emergence of open source solutions that can challenge traditional enterprise monitoring giants HP/OpenView and IBM/Tivoli. OpenNMS and Zenoss provide a broad set of features at a dramatically lower cost (or no cost) than these tier-one commercial competitors, and they can scale to monitor large numbers of network nodes. Both are very advanced systems capable of monitoring a wide variety of network devices. Both also provide means to extend the functionality of the system and to add custom support for uncommon or esoteric network devices.
OpenNMS is a purely open source software project, meaning that customers get the complete set of features available for free as open source. There is no "enterprise" version. Zenoss provides an open source version of its software with a limited feature set for free, and it sells a more extensive "enterprise" version of the software with support through an annual subscription. Because Zenoss's free open source edition falls far short of what OpenNMS provides for free, OpenNMS wins the Bossie.
In security, Bossies go to the flexible and secure KeePass password manager, the light and simple IPCop firewall, and the neatly packaged Untangle network gateway. We know it's just some glue and a pretty AJAX interface, but that's exactly what was needed for this type of appliance. Another winner is PacketFence, a simple LAMP-based network access control solution that works with a number of common enterprise switches and wireless APs.
Kamailio, the SIP proxy formerly known as OpenSER, earns a Bossie for being such a good partner to Asterisk, helping the VoIP PBX meet the scalability and reliability requirements of business environments. Where Asterisk works well, you'll likely also find Kamailio/OpenSER.
Our winning NAS is also our winning SAN. Openfiler can operate at either the SAN or NAS level -- or both simultaneously. It can talk to disk drives on IDE, SAS, SATA, SCSI, or iSCSI interfaces. It's compatible with RAID hardware from Adaptec, LSI Logic, Intel, and others. It can handle file systems up to 60TB in size, and it supports Fast, Gigabit, and 10 Gigabit Ethernet controllers from Intel and Broadcom, among others.
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