More and more organisations are adding open source technology to their IT procurement options, but the key question has always been whether open source technologies are robust enough for business.
The software may be technically good enough, but users have held back because of concerns over the level of support they can obtain.
Such concern is likely to become more important. Research by Gartner suggests that 95% of the Forbes Global 2000 companies will have formal open source acquisition and management strategies by 2008.
Key attractions are the financial advantages of the open source free-licence model and its collaborative network for sharing research and development costs by exploiting community-based economies of scale.
Laurent Lachal, senior analyst at Ovum, said there were many different types and levels of support that organisations should consider before adding open source components to their IT infrastructure.
“By definition, open source technology is open because of the communities that share the development of open source projects,” he said. “Some have very large, strong communities, like Apache, Eclipse and Linux.
“The larger the community, the better the support – and by that I mean support for developers. If it is not just an outright development project, then there might be support for testing and feedback support, including patches.”
But the free nature of open source technology, which makes it so attractive from a cost-of-ownership point of view, is the same reason Lachal warns enterprises against relying solely on its communities for support.
“The feedback I generally get is that the level of support from open source communities is very good,” he said. “But for an enterprise – where you might need 24/7 support, and technical issues solved on-the-fly within the hour, or else you start losing customers and money – you need mission-critical levels of support.”
Linux is the most widely used open source software, and continues to be the most popular operating system at enterprise level, according to recent research by IDC. Apache is the world’s most popular web server.
IDC estimates that 70%-80% of organisations worldwide have already deployed Linux within their IT infrastructure.
But open source is not just about Linux. “The open source market is expanding from Linux into the database, middleware, application servers, and applications for enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management, for example,” said Lachal.
“A whole ecosystem is being built around open source products, with strong, formal training, consulting, implementation and support services.”
For example, in April open source, Java-based application server company JBoss was acquired by open source supplier Red Hat. “JBoss spent 18 months putting its own support infrastructure in place for its customers, who will now work with Red Hat,” said Lachal.
As the range of Linux-based offerings has grown, dedicated open source suppliers such as Red Hat and MySQL increasingly take the lead in offering enterprise-scale support on a professional basis.
Red Hat’s approach is through a subcription model, ranging from maintenance updates and web resources, to 24-hour support and response times based on service level agreements.
The tiered subscription pricing structure can be more economical than traditional, commercial support and maintenance pricing structures.
Werner Knoblich, vice-president for Red Hat in Europe, Middle East and Africa, said that without the initial costs of creating open source products, lower research and development costs were passed on to the customer.
“The customers who are seeing the biggest return on their investment tend to be those that migrate a classic Unix environment to Linux, where they may have been running Sun Solaris, for example. Some say they achieve as much as 40-50% in cost savings [including support].”
Evidence of large-scale savings should go some way to reassuring IT managers who are worried about offsetting the costs of supporting an open source deployment alongside proprietary component costs within mixed IT environments.
MySQL Network is a subscription service available in tiers – basic, silver, gold and platinum – designed so that users of the open source MySQL relational database can choose the appropriate level of support for their requirements.
Bertrand Matthelié, EMEA marketing director of open source database management supplier MySQL, said, “MySQL Network is priced per server, so customers do not have to worry about the number of CPUs or the number of cores, for example.”
The company has also entered into partnership agreements with companies such as Novell, Hewlett-Packard and Unisys to deliver MySQL Network front-line support to customers.
Such industry collaboration means users are offered a single point of contact for the support of all their enterprise software requirements, including any components that are based on open source licensing.
Basic subscriptions to the latest open source server products, for example, with CPU, chipset, memory and support restrictions, will cost £187 per server per year direct from Red Hat and Novell’s SuSE range, and £185 from MySQL.
Large, commercial IT companies like Sun and IBM also participate heavily in open source projects and increasingly embed open source code, tools and resources in their own product, support and maintenance packages.
The growing involvement of commercial IT suppliers, major service providers and systems integrators demonstrates the growth of a professional knowledge-based network that is underpinning the use of open source technology.
But annual costs for support from traditional IT industry heavyweights that exploit open source alliances can run into similar six-figure sums as proprietary support agreements.
Most suppliers contacted by Computer Weekly said project-based or annual support was often negotiable on an enterprise scale, depending on the services supplied and the mix of technologies in the customer’s IT environment.
To be able to identify where to initiate incident resolution, reasonable skill levels must be maintained within the IT department. In other words, IT directors must effectively manage service provider or supplier support relationships as well as the IT systems themselves.
An area of recent growth in the open source market has been the arrival of value-added resellers or managed service providers selling business-ready open source systems to run in a live production environment.
US provider SpikeSource, for example, offers pre-built open source infrastructure packages with applications, libraries, servers and tools already integrated, tested, configured and bundled with support.
This investment model is proving particularly popular with smaller organisations that may need more domain expertise, and independent software suppliers who need to support a number of programming languages at minimum cost.
Although nearly every IT supplier or services provider seems to be developing some level of participation in this market, open source companies that focus purely on software development are now looking to develop their local channel businesses too, to fulfill the local services and support needs of MySQL business users.
The percentage of total worldwide revenue last year from the MySQL indirect channel, for example, was 30% – with a target to add a further 10% in 2006.
However, some industry experts argue that despite the growing maturity of open source support for business users, finding support for open source IT systems need not be as major a consideration as it is for commercial software options.
Cyndi Mitchell, UK operations director of software development house ThoughtWorks, said this is because of the superior levels of stability and performance generally expected from open source IT systems.
Drawing on experience of bespoke, open source software developments for large enterprises such as banks and retailers, Mitchell said, “Many companies are using open source as a first resort, depending on size and levels of IT sophistication.
“If you want to make a mission-critical investment, in many cases the open source model is better geared to deliver higher levels of support than proprietary, commercial software offerings.”
Along with cost, there is also a question of independence and the provider’s ability to handle all kinds of open source queries.
Michael Azoff, senior analyst at the Butler Group, said taking on a combination such as Red Hat’s professional service offerings, in conjunction with those from traditional global services players, is the best way to avoid conflict due to interoperability or cost issues.
He also believes smaller open source providers have something to add to the support mix. Azoff said companies like Red Hat were beginning to challenge the bigger global services players, such as EDS, Capgemini and IBM Global Services.
“The best support strategy would be to have two or three providers, as people did in the days where you could only buy licensed software, playing one off against the other to get the best discount,” he said.
Case study: Irish Stock Exchange
The Irish Stock Exchange began migrating legacy systems to Red Hat Enterprise Linux 18 months ago to obtain greater return on investment from its IT systems, as well as reliability, security and ease of maintenance.
Alan Finan, IT manager for the exchange, faced dealing with an ageing Unix infrastructure running a mission-critical custom trading application on an Oracle database that needed to be simplified.
“We had to find a framework that would allow us to continue doing business, whether from our current location or any other, no matter what befell the exchange,” said Finan.
“If I chose a Windows platform, I would also have to buy different packages and a licence for every single thing. It becomes very expensive.”
He added, “We have been bowled over by how reliable and stable it is. We are now going to roll out more applications based on this Linux framework.”