Open source demands new IT buying strategies

As the software industry increasingly turns toward open source, IT managers must rethink how they evaluate and purchase assets

There are no two ways about it: open source is everywhere. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a single IT shop today that doesn’t take advantage of open source software, be it Linux, MySQL, Perl, or the Snort networking tool. And everywhere you look, top-tier vendors such as IBM, Novell, Oracle, and Sun are investing heavily in open source projects and community-based development. Even Microsoft is getting in on the game. But despite widespread and growing acceptance, making the case for open source in mission-critical enterprise IT environments isn’t always easy.

To some, the idea of a major technology vendor open sourcing its software conjures up an image of an IT garage sale, where companies give away unsuccessful and poorly maintained products in the desperate hope that someone else will know what to do with them. After all, if a piece of software is good enough to use, then surely it’s good enough to sell?

It’s true that companies occasionally open source their software more as a way to generate buzz than as an honest attempt to garner community support, but it’s a mistake to assume that motive. The business models around open source are maturing, and what began with a few early trailblazers is growing into a genuine revolution in thinking within the software industry. While it’s natural and even advisable to maintain a healthy skepticism about open source today, within a few years’ time the open source model may actually become the norm, rather than the exception.

This leaves IT managers in a quandary. As the old models and assumptions of software development begin to give way, so too must the traditional means by which IT shops evaluate and procure enterprise software. More and more, those decisions will require a new kind of savvy that reaches far beyond the budget sheet and into the software development ecosystem itself.

No free lunch

The first question that must be addressed is how a company such as IBM or Oracle can afford to give away its software for free. The answer is simple: They don’t, really -- at least not when you look at the larger picture.

For many reasons, the traditional shrink-wrap software distribution model is a poor fit for enterprise software. As IT infrastructures grow larger and more complex, per-seat or per-CPU licensing schemes become increasingly hard to manage. Arcane pricing formulas lead to fee structures that don’t accurately reflect the actual utility of the software, not to mention inspiring a variety of creative accounting techniques on the part of bewildered CFOs.

For these reasons, some companies, such as Sun, have made the conscious decision to forsake the shrink-wrap model in favor of pure subscription pricing. The software itself is free. Customers pay for the ongoing support, maintenance, and integration assistance.

A skeptic might say this is just a different kind of Hollywood accounting. And it’s true; in the long run, the omission of a specific licensing fee doesn’t necessarily mean that customers will save any money. It’s important to note, however, that a company that has made the leap to a subscription-based pricing structure is but one step away from the next stage of its evolution.

The subscription-support software model is the open source software model. All that remains is to open the code -- and that’s exactly what Sun, among others, is doing (see “Sun signals a new day for open source”).

Companies, including MySQL AB and Red Hat, have built successful businesses by charging money for enterprise-level support for free software. As such ventures continue to grow and flourish, proprietary software vendors must ask themselves whether the business benefit of keeping their source code under lock and key really outweighs the other benefits offered by this new software paradigm.

Community counts

For software vendors and customers alike, the key benefit of this new style of software development is community. The community surrounding an open source project is its life’s blood. Even the best code will wither and stagnate if it’s not supported by an active, thriving, and engaged developer ecosystem.

For a customer company, evaluating those communities can be one of the more difficult challenges in the software procurement process. The decision to buy a given piece of proprietary enterprise software often comes down to the reputation of the vendor in question. When evaluating an open source project, however, the factors involved can be considerably more complicated.

Before a company makes the decision to deploy any open source project, it’s critical that experienced IT staff investigate the project thoroughly. How is its developer community organized? What is its model of governance? Who are its most active participants? Who is allowed to commit changes, and how often does that happen? How are internal disputes resolved? How is the code licensed?

The backing of a major software vendor can lend an open source project additional credibility with enterprise users, but it also raises additional questions. For example, commercial vendors can approach community-building in various ways. Some view it as a purely laissez-faire exercise, whereas others may harbor hopes of using their communities as sales channels for their service organizations. As a customer, it’s best to seek out companies that promote open source but also clearly delineate between their open source and their commercial efforts.

Ultimately, every IT decision begins with a business problem. Solving those problems remains Job No. 1 for every IT organization; as such, open source software should be evaluated for its features, stability, scalability, security, and all the other standards to which proprietary software is held.

A natural outcome of the proliferation of open source, however, is more choices. The people in the best position to weigh those choices are the people who are closest to the projects -- who know the ins and outs of the community and have a feel for where a project is going. Because of that, skilled IT personnel with deep knowledge of technology, now more than ever, remain key assets for the most successful companies.