Alarm at the tightening of supplier software licence regimes and pressure from finance directors to achieve more value for less money have helped to create new opportunities for the open source movement. That trend is marked this week in two ways. First by the launch of OpenForum Europe, a body set up by users and suppliers to promote the open source movement at board level. The second is an in-depth survey on open source usage and perceptions among UK IT directors and finance directors, which points to imminent, large-scale Linux adoption by retailers for point of sale terminals.
Just over one-third of IT directors are using open source software already, found the survey. The research was carried out by Trend Consulting for OpenForum Europe and the Department of Trade & Industry, which quizzed, in detail, 59 IT directors and 17 finance directors. However, perceived risk factors mean that it is used tactically rather than strategically, most commonly for Web serving and firewalls. Usage for file management and Web development was significantly higher among respondents in the retail sector.
Support availability was the biggest concern (among 41% of respondents). However, the surprise was that 55% of those already using open source software were concerned about availability of support compared with 32% of respondents not yet using it. One reason could be that as open source is being used tactically these organisations do not have a support infrastructure in place. That is a core issue that the open source community needs to address urgently.
Security was another area where users had more concerns than non-users, especially among finance sector companies, which have a deep-rooted concern about security in an open environment. Independent certification for open source software by an acceptable body would go a long way to address the security issue.
Other challenges that proved tougher than expected by open source users are cross-platform compatibility and finding the right skills. These all contribute to a perception of risk in using open source software. IT directors polled also raised questions about the overall cost benefits of replacing existing infrastructure with open source.
The demands on open source software are greater given the pressure to reduce costs. However, the finance directors surveyed were not looking solely at reducing costs - they were equally concerned to maintain the feasibility and operability of IT. They want not only to save money but to improve service, so IT directors need to have a clear economic argument for deploying open source software. While concerned to reduce the total cost of ownership, IT directors are not likely to accept a reduction in IT performance as a trade-off.
In many areas the benefits of using open source software exceeded expectations, especially in cost savings through reduction of licence costs and in the amount of up-time improvement achieved. Only 3% of non-users expected better up-time, whereas 18% of them gained it. Users also experienced better control over development than expected. Other worries about open source among non-users, including availability of applications, absence of supplier credibility, and an unproven due diligence process, evaporated when they came to use it. Public sector respondents had particular concerns about finding open source applications.
Major fall-out from the supplier licensing upheavals is likely to hit home soon in the retail sector, which is poised to look at open source because of the volume of licences on point-of-sale terminals.
The concept of open source software is well received by the IT director respondents, but, as the report says, "IT directors do not buy philosophies - they buy technology which is proven to help them run their business."
That attitude accounts for the caution in moving from tactical use to strategic deployment. IT directors are adopting a wait-and-see attitude, pausing to allow others to move first, to minimise the perceived risk. OpenForum Europe aims to help to break any deadlock here.
"This is not an evangelical group," says programme director Graham Taylor. "It is highly business-focused and tackles those issues which are preventing open source having wider success in business. At a time when cost of ownership has never been more important, it is paramount that businesses can fully understand the opportunity, as well as the pitfalls, and make informed decisions."
The survey found that while overall cost reduction is the prime responsibility of finance directors, it is up to IT directors to work out how to reduce IT costs, including licensing costs. It revealed an almost total lack of communication between IT directors and their finance directors when it comes to open source awareness. That is one area where OpenForum Europe sees a facilitating role.
Perhaps the most significant outcome of this week's flurry of open source launch activity is that the open source debate has moved firmly into the business and strategic domain, and up several notches from being a primarily technical and tactical issue.
Why we need yet another user group
OpenForum Europe, a group of large IT users and suppliers launched this week, aims to strengthen the perception and credibility of open source, particularly in government and among commercial users. OpenForum Europe will address the business issues of using open source software such as return-on-investment, true cost, and auditability. It is aiming at finance directors as well as IT directors and its founder members include Citibank, Caldera, Compaq, Financial Times, GB Direct, Globix, IBM, Identrus, IT Direct at Lloyds and Reed in Partnership.
Bruce Forbes, chief technology officer of the Financial Times Group, says, "We view the launch of OpenForum Europe as an invaluable opportunity to help UK business grasp some of the real business opportunities surrounding open source software."
OpenForum Europe is a not-for-profit sister programme to Interforum, the Department of Trade & Industry-backed organisation that encourages small- and medium-sized companies to trade online. Like Interforum, OpenForum will be under the umbrella of the Government-backed IT Forum Foundation which promotes use of e-commerce in UK business.
What the directors say
"We are looking to use Linux more and more. When you use Linux the cost of managing that equipment goes down substantially. Also, with Linux you don't need to upgrade the equipment that often, and that is in line with our IT budget being cut."
IT director, high-street retailer
"We are not happy with the way some of the software is charged for and structured in terms of payment. It needs to be more flexible and this is where open source software becomes an advantage. It has to be established though, before we are confident to look at it as a means of addressing the licensing issue."
IT director, insurance company
"We are currently looking at our business plans. The licensing cost issue alone makes it more likely that we will move to Linux. We have 30 to 40 tills per location and when you multiply that by the number of stores we have, you can then imagine what that's going to cost."
IT director, high-street retailer
"Open source software will play an increasingly important role in our IT strategy. I would like to run it mainly on the mainframe, as licensing costs are enormous for OS/390, so we will look at replacing it with Linux."
IT director, insurance firm
"The challenge is, who do we sue?"
Finance director, bank