Not too long ago, open source meant starving developers; scant documentation; an ugly, outdated Web site; and software that lived in perpetual beta. Now open source software is becoming big business. “Now hiring” is a common sight on project home pages, and .org and SourceForge sites that used to point straight to source code archives are redirected to .com URLs that celebrate the commercial success of what started out as collaborations among unpaid coders of like mind.
Should you be ticked off, for example, that Scalix doesn’t give away the code for its Outlook server-side functionality? You could, but having most of the source code for what’s running in your datacenter affords you more self-sufficiency and investment protection than running on completely closed code.
Some products that were once exclusively commercial got religion, or had it thrust upon them, and re-emerged as open source. OpenLaszlo, a multi-platform rich Web application solution, may be the best closed-to-open success story. Laszlo Systems’ open source conversion unquestionably put the company in the right place at the right time, adding orders of magnitude to its installed base and even setting the stage for Adobe’s incremental opening of its crown jewel Flash and Flex technologies.
Some projects seem to grow out of commercial companies’ skunkworks, and make it out into the open, so to speak, before marketing can lay claim to them. Tibco General Interface could easily win both worst-named product and “that can’t possibly be open source!” prizes. This gold standard among Ajax toolkits is unexpected generosity from a middleware titan. It is unquestionably worth charging for, and yet it’s not only free, it’s open sourced under the extraordinarily liberal BSD license.
All of this intermarrying and intermingling among commercial, open, open source, free, and free for commercial use makes a mess of our understanding of the definition of “open.” We’d love to be purists and declare that a product isn’t open source unless every last line of the code is downloadable in a form that tracks a corresponding commercial release, is freely modifiable, and is open to unrestricted redistribution. That strategy can work: Ubuntu Linux is a “free forever,” enterprise-class Linux distribution that derives its funding from DVD sales and logo merchandise.
Enterprise open source needs commercial support to thrive because developers, technical writers, instructors, help desk staff, trade show booths, and airfare cost money. That Utopia where an enterprise can run a datacenter with zero investment in software is a mirage. But enterprises should write investment in open source into their planning. Although the catalog of software that you can own and control shrinks daily, open source and open source-based commercial software pushes back with trustworthy and well-supported alternatives that don’t lash you to opaque solutions and vendors who assert a license to pick your pockets at will.
In this first edition of our Best of Open Source Software awards, we celebrate these alternatives across the IT landscape -- in applications, operating platforms, middleware, software development, networking, security, and, yes, even storage. Open source is pouring into every corner of the enterprise. Welcome to the Bossies.
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