Open source - it’s the logical alternative

It’s round two in the fight between open source and commercial software, and open source is punching well above its weight

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There is a growing realisation in IT that traditional Windows, Unix and Oracle skills are the new “legacy”.

From startups to the largest e-commerce sites, open source software has become the infrastructure choice, and there is demand for hot new open source skills.

Until recently, IT ran very much on off-the-shelf commercial software. Datacentres ran proprietary Unix hardware and x86-based Windows servers, while Windows dominated the desktop.

Now the end user computing environment has been totally disrupted by the advent of smartphones and tablets, and Linux is becoming an increasingly dominant force in the datacentre.

In fact, analyst IDC noted in August 2015 that there has been a shift to open source systems in the server market.

“The recent growth trend in the server market is confirmation of the larger IT investment taking place, despite dramatic change occurring in system software, thanks to open source projects such as Docker and OpenStack,” said Al Gillen, IDC’s group vice-president for enterprise infrastructure.

Web-scale appeal

As Computer Weekly has previously reported, some businesses choose open source alternatives for new projects in a bid to drive down the level of commercial database licensing in their organisations. For instance, ABN Amro Clearing Bank has decided to use EnterpriseDB, which offers what it claims is a plug-in replacement for Oracle SE through the PostgreSQL open source database.

Open source pricing is particularly attractive for the web-scale businesses that expect a larger number of users. Rather than licence on the size of the server or number of users, which is how commercial software tends to be charged, open source software is free; the business only pays for a commercial support contract if it chooses to.

As Gartner noted when it assessed the open source database market in its State of open source RDBMSs, 2015 report, published last April, the cost of the open source-based EnterpriseDB database server is £41,400 over three years, compared with £473,100 for a comparable Oracle Enterprise Edition configuration.

Software cost is one of the big drivers behind open source adoption, but it is not the only driver. Cost aside, open source seems to offer some organisations a superior technical choice. Further, analyst Forrester notes in its report, Application Modernisation, Service by Microservice: “Cloud services and open source software offer new code replacement alternatives. Open source projects and other cloud service providers such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Salesforce have made large numbers of high-quality components and services available that facilitate microservice implementation and enable organisations to reduce the amount of code they need to write. This has opened up new possibilities for replacing custom code within applications.”

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Global ticket distribution company Amadeus serves almost 700 million passengers. It took more than half a billion travel reservations in 2014. The company needed a system with extremely low response times and high consistency to support its new Amadeus Cloud Services. It selected a suite of open source technologies, including Red Hat’s OpenShift platform, with Docker containers and Kubernetes orchestration, together with the Couchbase NoSQL database, to build a standardised and unified deployment process across a global distributed environment.

Christophe Defayet, director of R&D for airline IT at Amadeus, says: “We are using Couchbase to provide near real-time access – making the system highly scalable.”

For Defayet, using open source technology means Amadeus is not locked in to any one supplier’s technology stack. “We have the [ability] to master the entire software stack,” he says, adding that by contributing actively to the open source community, Amadeus has an opportunity to influence the product roadmap.

Bookmaker William Hill’s new recommendation engine is also based on open source technology. To deliver a recommendation engine fast and responsive enough to adapt to the volume of data and frequency of price changes, William Hill has developed a data aggregation layer. Built on a number of open source technologies – including Spark, Kafka and Cassandra – this aggregation layer brings together both user data and contextual big data to build a holistic, real-time picture of each customer.

Unstoppable success

William Hill CTO Finbarr Joy says open source technology has evolved from being too risky to where it is now “unstoppable”. “In the developer community, if you want to make rapid progress, you’ll use an open source framework,” he says.

One of the quirks of open source software is that it is a community effort. People use code, but they also contribute. William Hill has developed orchestration and provisioning technology, which it is looking to give to the open source community. For Joy, the intellectual property is not the code itself, but the data that William Hill is able to manipulate. “There is a massive advantage for us to give back code to the open source community,” he says.

Talented Github

Among the benefits often cited is that code quality of open source software is much higher than closed source and in-house IT projects. But for Joy, making his developers’ work open source has additional benefits. Code is submitted to Github, where many other open source developers can give the code a peer review. The fact that people outside the organisation can see the source code means code produced tends to be of higher quality.

Being in the public domain also means the developer is likely to submit cleaner code, and once on Github, the community is able to get involved in improving the submitted software. Second, for Joy, Github represents a litmus test of a software developer’s worth, in terms of the code they have contributed to the open source community. It is a similar story at Amadeus. For Defayet, using open source code boosts talent acquisition and retention. “As a leading IT company, usage and contribution to open source generates engagement and even passion,” he adds.

Community support

Defayet says organisations that use open source code benefit from a large community and the documentation that is readily available on the internet. “There is extremely good support,” he says. This means the engineering team can pick up new open source skills quickly.

David Byrne, director of architecture at Dixons Carphone, believes open source has a very important part to play in the enterprise. The retailer has used Apache web server for several years and runs the open source NoSQL distributed database, Couchbase. “What tends to happen is you use the community edition in the non-production part of the lifecycle. This makes it easier to find people in the community who are driving development, which drives innovation,” he says.

As a project progresses into production, businesses then need enterprise support. Analyst Gartner believes the cost of managing open source databases, and the availability of skills, are now close to parity with those of the commercial DBMS offerings. Enterprise open source support is a growing market. “The speed of response in the community means flaws are fixed, and this feeds right back into the community,” says Byrne.

This drives innovation. Arguably, it is the innovative nature of open source that makes it truly compelling for enterprise IT. “The real innovation in software development is taking place in open source, while the enterprise software providers lag behind,” says Byrne. For instance, products such as Chef and the continuous development process came from the open source community.

Overcoming challenges

The open source community evokes disruptive innovation, according to Joy. There are people pushing open source technology such as NoSQL databases into areas once inhabited solely by the likes of Oracle, IBM and Microsoft. Over time, the community will eventually solve any technical challenges that prevent using open source as a replacement for commercial products. So there should be no reason not to put commercial open source offerings on a shortlist when looking to renew existing enterprise software contracts.

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