Bossie Awards 2016: The best open source applications

InfoWorld's top picks in open source business applications, collaboration, and middleware

The best open source applications
The best open source applications

The world of open source applications is a precarious one. Take SugarCRM, for instance. Once it was a leading light of open source in the enterprise; today it’s strictly a SaaS offering, sucking at Salesforce’s exhaust. Or see OpenOffice. Only yesterday it was everyone’s favorite finger in the eye of Microsoft; today it hardly has a reason to exist, as LibreOffice races off into the distance. Among our Bossie winners in applications, collaboration, and middleware you’ll find a number of projects that have reinvented and endured, along with a few that are completely new.

[ InfoWorld unveils the Bossies: The best open source products of the year. | The best open source networking and security software. | The best open source datacenter and cloud software. | The best open source application development tools. | The best open source big data tools. | Stay up on open source with the InfoWorld Linux report. ]

LibreOffice
LibreOffice

LibreOffice remains the best and only choice among open source office productivity suites. Libre’s lineage derives from Apache OpenOffice. But while its progenitor languishes, with ongoing concerns over its future and stability, Libre continues to thrive.

Two minor releases this year focused on security and ease of use. Security improvements include new access controls, with document signatures and certificate handling, and two-factor authentication that secures access to the likes of Google Drive. Support of TSCP (Transglobal Secure Collaboration Program) standards for document classification (such as creation and marking of classified documents) makes Libre an attractive option for handling sensitive information in enterprise and government settings.

Some tweaks to the Libre UI shed annoyances and improve usability. Calc spreadsheet users will appreciate the updated formula tooltips, while Impress users benefit from new sidebar property menus -- no more popups -- and a better template manager UI.

Most impressive, though, has been the launch of the Open365 beta -- with communication tools via KDE Kontact and cloud storage -- that’s also available for in-house deployment. Open365 brings LibreOffice online and in direct competition with Microsoft Office 365.

-- James R. Borck

Flatpak
Flatpak

Why must Linux have so many different packaging formats? It’s a question developers must ask themselves every time they prepare an app for distribution. Flatpak aims to simplify that process with a single format for all Linux distros and even their different versions. Flatpak essentially creates a distribution-agnostic application.

Rather than building a traditional RPM for Fedora and a separate deb package for Ubuntu, Flatpak (formerly known as xdg-app) lets you bundle your application with all of its dependencies into a build that will run on multiple platforms. Not only that, the app is isolated in its own sandbox during runtime -- thanks to various built-in Linux subsystems -- so there’s no risk of collision with existing libraries or other apps on the host.

If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like Canonical’s Snap applications, you’re right. Currently, Flatpak offers more flexible and more granular security than Snap, and it bypasses the Canonical app store. On the downside, Flatpak is intended for desktop apps, while Snap packages also target server deployments. There will undoubtedly be debate over which approach is best for enterprise use. For now, Flatpak looks to offer the best answer to Linux package distribution. 

-- James R. Borck

Rocket.Chat
Rocket.Chat

Slack quickly stole all of the oxygen from real-time communication and collaboration, but it was only temporary. Its closed-source underpinnings sparked immediate responses from the open source community, making collaboration one of the hottest areas in open source development today.

Based on the full-stack JavaScript platform Meteor, Rocket.Chat runs on Node.js and uses a MongoDB back end to deliver a flexible and extensible web chat server that is much more than a chat server. Rocket.Chat also weaves in videoconferencing, screen sharing, voice messaging, and file sharing and review. The topper is a solid search engine to find everything. Think IRC plus Google Docs plus Skype -- on steroids.

With Rocket.Chat, it's a snap to create ad hoc working groups with private and public channels. You can deploy on a number of cloud platforms (AWS, DigitalOcean, Google Cloud, Heroku) or self-host on Linux, FreeBSD, Windows Server, or Docker. There are native clients for Linux, MacOS, and Windows, and web apps for iOS and Android that work well with on-the-go email notifications and push updates.

Thanks to LDAP integration and easy Slack import, liftoff with Rocket.Chat is that much smoother. 

-- James R. Borck

Mattermost
Mattermost

Like Rocket.Chat, Mattermost is an open source, self-hosted, extensible messaging and collaboration platform giving Slack a run for its money. Mattermost eschews videoconferencing and voice messaging to focus exclusively on chat, but it is decidedly enterprise-oriented with its strong emphasis on security and compliance.

Mattermost pulls together chat, embedded audio and video, file sharing, and external data feeds into a unified, searchable portal you can access by browser, desktop client, or mobile device. A Linux application built with Go and React, and supporting MySQL and PostgreSQL on the back end, Mattermost lets you host your own secure collaboration server on a familiar platform with granular, permissions-based controls that are well-suited to managing larger groups.

Although the Mattermost browser UI doesn’t feel quite as spry as its Rocket.Chat counterpart, it is every bit as usable, and its mobile clients feel more thoroughly baked. Under the covers you’ll find straightforward support for teams, webhooks to tap external sources, push notifications to mobile apps, comprehensive language/localization support, AD/LDAP integration, and Slack channel import. Reporting tools to track user stats and interactions help to round out a terrific package.

-- James R. Borck

Odoo
Odoo

When the developers behind OpenERP rebranded to Odoo in 2014, they set out to expand the project’s reach. They succeeded. Odoo has not only attracted new users, but drawn the interest and expertise of an active developer community as well. With those developers have come a wealth of new apps that fortify the Odoo ecosystem.

Odoo combines business operations management (accounting, HR, inventory, purchasing) with front office (sales, CRM, point-of-sale) and productivity tools (timesheets, chat), along with e-commerce and marketing features. Yet the package remains approachable enough for any small business to get up and running.

An upgrade is required to take advantage of features in the Enterprise version -- such as mobile access and advanced reporting -- not provided in the Community Edition. While concerns have been raised about the recent change in Odoo’s licensing model from the AGPL to LGPLv3, the move serves to enable the creation and sale of third-party modules.

Ultimately, the shift to LGPLv3 should help stimulate interest, innovation, and the continued success of the Odoo platform, which starts with its developer ecosystem. Developers gotta eat too. 

-- James R. Borck

iDempiere
iDempiere

Although there were no major updates to the iDempiere Business Suite this year, it remains our top choice for open source ERP. iDempiere is especially well-suited for larger manufacturing and distribution companies.

The recent switch to a modular, OSGi plugin architecture combined with iDempiere’s strong developer community has spawned innovation in features and solutions that continue to distinguish this competing fork of ADempiere. The suite packs a full complement of ERP apps (accounting, procurement, materials, and manufacturing) along with CRM and supply chain/business partner management. 

Built on Java with support for Oracle and PostgreSQL back ends, iDempiere can be highly customized to meet the most demanding specifications. A set of onboard development tools help smooth out the bumps for distributed development teams.

A light Java footprint and streamlined interface make iDempiere a usable, scalable platform across Linux, Windows, and MacOS. ERP doesn’t come cheap, no matter whether you build or buy. But with the combination of enterprise-grade features and a free open source license, iDempiere is a compelling proposition.

-- James R. Borck

SuiteCRM
SuiteCRM

More than a decade into development, SuiteCRM continues to innovate and extend. The inheritor of the open source CRM crown from SugarCRM brings together account management, sales force automation, and marketing tools that are comparable to what you’ll find in Sugar Professional. A rich collection of extensions covers everything from enterprise security add-ons to search, social media, and Mail Chimp marketing integration.

The latest release offers up deeper reporting options through a new analytics tool, Suite Spot. A drag-and-drop report designer lets you create and refine complex reports -- no training or knowledge of SQL required. Reports can be saved locally or pushed to the portal for sharing.

Perhaps best of all, the SuiteCRM user interface has been overhauled with mobile devices in mind, making small screens equal citizens to the desktop -- and offering reliable sync wherever you’re working. If you’re looking for a functional, performant CRM server that can streamline your sales processes and customer interactions, you’ll find it in SuiteCRM. 

-- James R. Borck

Alfresco
Alfresco

Alfresco is easily the most comprehensive and extensible way to manage documents and other digital assets across enterprise repositories, thanks to integrations with the likes of SharePoint, Salesforce, Amazon S3, and Google Drive.

Additions in the latest release, like Smart Folders metadata, let you more easily search and access content without knowing its location. New tools like the Model Manager guide nontechnical users through tasks that used to require techs, such as shaping a consistent content repository.

Alfresco offers on-premises and cloud editions, as well as a hybrid sync option that facilitates content access and collaboration with entities beyond the firewall. With Alfresco Mobile, users gain on-the-go access, including full integration with Microsoft Office apps. Developers get a good, solid SDK to customize and extend the platform, a REST API for client apps, a Java API for server-side extensions -- lots of options.

A free community edition, a SaaS edition, and the enterprise-grade Alfresco One offer a number of ways to get started. Note the community edition has a number of limitations, including no support for HA clustering, hybrid cloud deployments, or extensions. 

-- James R. Borck

Camunda BPM
Camunda BPM

Camunda BPM is as good as it gets in open source BPM and workflow. Originally a fork of Alfresco’s Activiti, Camunda has developed into an elegant solution for automating the three pillars of BPM: system processes, human workflow, and case management.

The Camunda group has been busy this past year bringing support for Decision Model Notation (DMN) to the platform. The new release implements a DMN engine and a web app to monitor decision-table rules and adjust those rules on the fly. The Camunda team has also improved diagram creation -- drawing on the bpmn.io web-based tooling to build the Camunda Modeler for BPMN and CMMN (Case Management Model Notation) models as well as Camunda’s DMN decision tables.

Camunda’s built-in dashboards provide a real-time view into processes and KPIs and provide a conduit to modify or suspend running processes that require corrective action. An enterprise edition brings specialty server support (IBM WebSphere and Oracle WebLogic) and an enterprise dashboard with additional process inspection and exception handling capabilities. Whichever Camunda edition you choose, you get a well-documented, lightweight, Java-based BPM framework that can easily be hooked and extended to support existing apps.

-- James R. Borck

Talend Open Studio
Talend Open Studio

It’s hardly surprising that Talend Open Studio is our top choice for ETL and EAI. When it comes to data integration -- whether on-premises or in the cloud -- no open source competitor stands up to Talend’s capability or performance.

Talend Open Studio -- in its various incarnations for big data, data integration, data quality, ESB, and master data management -- allows you to ingest and transform data reliably, regardless of the source. The Studio supplies a visual development and debugging environment, allowing you to wire together transforms and synchronize data among sources with ease.

Talend’s commercial editions pack additional features for monitoring, as well as development and collaboration. Naturally, Talend Open Studio meshes well with the company’s commercial flagship EAI platform, Talend Data Fabric. Talend Data Fabric isn’t free, but its flexible pricing makes even smaller integration projects possible on most any budget.

-- James R. Borck

Pentaho
Pentaho

Turning raw data into competitive advantage is an increasingly complex undertaking. Pentaho combines a rich set of data integration tools with advanced analytics to tackle the most difficult BI challenges.

Pentaho allows you to pull data from myriad sources -- from traditional SQL databases to social media feeds and everything in between -- and conquer error-prone and repetitive ETL tasks through automation. New dynamic ETL metadata injection sends metadata to the integration engine at runtime to accelerate the data onboarding process and promote reuse of underlying transform logic. Other new optimization techniques (like Parameter Pushdown) kick data transforms into high gear, while a rewrite of the JSON input both improves speed and supports larger files.

Pentaho is a powerful tool with the complexity to match (read: not geared toward the novice developer), and it’s built for speed. In short, Pentaho has the right stuff for many enterprise use cases -- from native Hadoop access to embedded BI and beyond.

-- James R. Borck

ReportServer
ReportServer

With an impressive major rev this year, ReportServer shot right to the top of our list for BI reporting.

ReportServer 3 ushered in an improved UI and new dashboard layouts, with reporting parameters accessible directly within the console. It also introduced broader database support, starting with the addition of MariaDB and MonetDB columnstores, which promise huge performance gains. Also, support for custom execution targets -- like exporting reports to a document management system -- makes it easier to get reports into the systems and hands that need them.

Note that ReportServer is now available in two editions: the community edition, which is still available under the AGPL, and a new enterprise edition, which requires a commercial license. The enterprise SKU supplements the community edition with enterprise features for security and authentication (LDAP, SSO, and so on) and scripting, among other perks. The community edition retains its support for an unlimited number of users and the TeamSpace collaboration tools.

Whether you’re looking to build out complex custom reporting solutions or simply make use of the quick and easy predefined report templates, ReportServer is sure to meet your needs. 

-- James R. Borck