When you should open-source your internal apps

It may feel like heresy, but there's sometimes a strong case to be made to share your internal innovation with competitors

Enterprise IT departments should revisit their application development strategies to follow some of the approaches used by Facebook and Twitter, argues RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady in a recent blog post. Specifically, he says you should invest application development resources only in applications that differentiate your business from your competitors, and rely on open-sourcing and permissive licensing to extend your reach and your development dollars. I believe he's right.

Unfortuately, most organizations develop too much software that doesn't really differentiate them; they should be using packaged or open source software instead for those needs and refocus their internal development efforts higher up the business value "stack."

[ Keep up on the current open source news and insights with InfoWorld's Technology: Open Source newsletter. ]

But in some cases, such as where there's no appropriate open source or commercial software available, you should consider developing an application in house and then open-sourcing it, using a permissive license into a third-party hosting site or foundation such as Github or Apache. The use of a permissive license, such as the Apache License, and external hosting helps others in your industry find the application. If you're fortunate, they'll contribute to evolving the application. That spreads the development costs over multiple companies.

Well, that's the theory. Putting it into practice is of course an altogether different issue. This new development model requires a major shift in line-of-businesses' and IT decision makers' mind-set. It's one thing to use an open source product, such as Linux or Alfresco, within your enterprise even while knowing your competitor is doing the same. It's entirely different to open-source, for instance, your custom-developed partner-onboarding application and watch your competitor use the application also.

If you can get over that mental barrier, do note that your company actually owns the copyrights to the source code. Some enterprise developers unwittingly use open source code for internal projects without considering the implications of its open source license. They assume, for example, that the application will never be distributed outside of the company, and thus that the license requirements will never be triggered. Many open source licenses have rules about redistribution that you must honor.

I almost dismissed the idea of competitors working on an open source project together, but then I remembered this happens all the time in the software industry. For example, IBM and Oracle both work on the Apache HTTP Server project because it allows both companies to save development resources versus building an HTTP server internally. The saved resources are used on higher-value products in the software stack. Also, if global banks are willing to create a technology buyers consortium to negotiate more effectively, why wouldn't these companies collaborate on open source application projects -- especially for lower-value applications?

Follow me on Twitter at SavioRodrigues. I should state: "The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies, or opinions."

This article, "When you should open-source your internal apps," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Rodrigues et al.'s Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.