The virtues of open source in your enterprise

The decision to forego proprietary software isn't always easy, but those who rise to the challenge can reap the rewards

Early adopters of open source blazed the trail for enterprise users of this new software model, even though they didn’t know where the journey might lead. Some of the territories they pioneered -- such as Linux, Apache, MySQL, and Perl -- are now well established. But in other areas, open source is only beginning to make inroads: CRM, portal management, content management, and reporting, for example.

For those willing to lead IT into new open source territories, the rewards await: a broad support community, greater flexibility, and more control over critical technologies. Good open source technology is supported by a broad base of developers, so the final code is well vetted and supported, just as good commercial code is, says Judith Hurwitz, president of IT research company Hurwitz & Associates. Even better, a strong community typically continues even if individual contributors pull out, making dependence less risky than on software from a vendor that may later go out of business, change technology direction, or be acquired by a company with a different agenda.

But waging the good fight for open source in the enterprise isn’t without its hazards. Making the most effective use of open source often calls for deep in-house technical knowledge. “You gain the ability to manage the software at a deep-enough level to handle the application requirements,” says Don DePalma, president of Common Sense Advisory, an IT research company. The trade-off is that managing your software and platforms at this level often calls for more creativity from your IT staff -- not to mention that you need the talent and time to stay abreast of developments in the open source community.

Venturing into that middle ground requires care, planning, and expertise. But for companies that rise to the challenge, such as the ones showcased in this special report, open source software has unique benefits that can’t be matched by the traditional shrink-wrapped approach to software.

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