Open source software is seeing slow but steady adoption among large UK businesses as they begin to take it to the heart of their organisations. One key factor that has held back adoption has been a lack of enterprise-class support and services, but this is changing.
The open source community has been addressing the demand for high-quality open source support, and over the past few years new enterprise service companies have emerged and entered the area dominated by the likes of Red Hat, Novell and IBM.
Steve Craggs, director of analyst firm Lustratus, says that the key question enterprises ask is: can open source software be supported effectively in mission-critical environments?
Up until recently, the answer has been no, says Craggs. "We are still not at the stage where companies are deploying open source heavily they are maybe using it for a low-priority project, but not necessarily a mission critical one."
Lack of support across the whole software stack has also been a problem in the past, he says. "You have to be very careful that the contract will support the whole stack. Linux was successful because Red Hat stood up and says it will support the stack," says Craggs.
However, Craggs says that there are now a number of professional services firms that are offering tiered support for the whole open source software stack. This support typically ranges from supporting applications on a same-day basis, with immediate phone contact, to round the clock "24x7" support.
Service firms are also supplying stacks that they verify will interoperate with a list of applications.
Another issue is whether the contract includes indemnity, which means a business cannot be prosecuted if an open source tool is discovered to have used "lifted" code. Some open source support firms, such as MuleSource, are willing to offer such indemnity, but not all.
Peter Dawes-Huish is chief executive officer of professional services firm LinuxIT, and is also on the panel of experts at financial services firm Standards & Poor's, providing advice to large companies on the adoption of open source and Linux.
He describes the open source and Linux world as a "minefield", which does not help to allay the concerns of large organisations that might use software created by community projects.
For Dawes-Huish, the key is for service firms such as LinuxIT to offer support and services that rival the packaged application world.
LinuxIT primarily offers consulting, integration and round-the-clock support services based around the popular Red Hat Linux and SuSE Linux operating systems, as well as a set of open source and proprietary applications and databases that include Oracle, Sybase, VMware, Kerio MailServer and WinRoute Firewall.
LinuxIT envisages itself in the middle tier of open source support, with the top tier including IBM, Dimension Data, and HP. In fact, LinuxIT's single biggest customer is HP, according to Dawes-Huish, partly because of the technical expertise within LinuxIT's support team.
The firm's typical customer has between 50 and 100 servers, and wants to run mission-critical applications on them. They also have a mixed environment of proprietary and open source software.
"We are a partner of the major Linux organisations and also Microsoft, and some of our biggest projects involve the interoperability of Microsoft and Linux. Our aim is to offer the best solutions within the constraints of the customer," says Dawes-Huish.
Its customers include three large telecoms firms and the Clyde & Forth Press Group of newspapers, where it carried out a major infrastructure and e-mail replacement.
It also provides services to a large logistics company, which runs a couple of hundred PCs across eight depots, and uses open source Java-based applications, and Linux-based thin-client desktops and servers to run key systems.
Sirius IT is another professional services firm that offers open source systems integration and support to large firms.
Its chief executive, Mark Taylor, says that over the past few years, he has seen enterprises "going up the stack" in terms of their requirements of open source software.
He says that as well as using open source for networking infrastructure, directory services, enterprise file and print, users are now looking into CRM and enterprise resource planning using open source databases such as PostgreSQL.
But he says, "ERP is still in the early-adopter mode, but we are aware of largish £1bn to £2bn per annum companies that are adopting open source for more critical applications."
The role of Web 2.0
Where Taylor is seeing some movement at the moment is in Web 2.0-style applications. Sirius IT recently carried out some work with the Linde Group, which owns BOC, to set up an open source system to run its internal "wikipedia" knowledge management tool.
As well as the Linde Group, Sirius IT's customers also include Linklaters LLP, Pentax, the Countryside Council for Wales and Specsavers.
Taylor says that organisations have moved from asking for strategic help with open source projects to support for their open source applications. In addition, over the past two to three years, they have started requesting a wider range of managed services.
As a result, services firms such as Sirius IT can offer users more in-depth open source services. For example, it helped Pindar, an electronic media company, to migrate from an Oracle database to Postgre over the past three years, carrying out the strategy, deployment and support.
"We have a Postgre team member on staff in our office, good links with the Postgre community, and reasonable access to the open source process. This means we can modify the source code, to counter interoperability problems," Taylor says.
Sirius IT and other service firms can also offer full open source application outsourcing, a trend that has emerged over the past year or so. Osborne Books is an example of a user Sirius IT offers outsourcing services to the IT firm manages its online books operation.
Professional services firm Credativ is a new arrival in the UK, headquartered in Germany, and offering high-quality Linux support services.
Its 38 staff are all technically literate and heavily involved in a number of open source distributions, being key players in the open source community.
As a result, the firm says that when its users call the helpline, they will go straight through to a technical person. Its customers range from SMEs to large enterprises.
Credativ supports Debian, Ubuntu, SuSE, Red Hat, Xandros, Gnome and KDE operating systems, as well as PostgreSQL and MySQL databases and a range of enterprise applications.
Its packages are modular and range from the basic (at £135 per month, two hours support with an eight-hour response time) to the comprehensive (24x7, 365 days a year) package.
Chris Halls, managing director at Credativ UK, says, "Until now, the level of support equivalent to that offered by commercial vendors has not been available to open source users. We believe that our comprehensive support service is crucial to encouraging more organisations to join the growing movement towards adopting free software in business.
"By offering a support package equivalent to those available to proprietary software users, we believe that more organisations will feel secure in the knowledge that their free software implementations are supported to the highest level."
This one-stop-shop approach is characteristic of the new breed of open source professional services firms.
However, many open source organisations have grown from offering a single open source product, for which they are now offering enterprise support.
One such organisation is Ingres, which made its name as being CA's relational database. However, John Smedley, senior consultant at Ingres, says the firm has now evolved into a broader services firm.
It offers and supports a range of products such as the Ingres BI (business intelligence) Appliance, and Ingres ECM (enterprise content management) Appliance.
Smedley says that 2008 will be an important year for enterprise open source initiatives. "The Dutch government has set 2008 as a deadline to adopt open source software the 2008 Olympic Committee is considering a switch to open source technology and suppliers such as Microsoft, IBM and Oracle are embracing open source," he says.
Mulesource is another example of a professional services firm that grew out of an open source technology.
Ross Mason is chief technology officer and co-founder of MuleSource, and creator of the Mule project, a popular open source enterprise service bus (ESB).
Mason says, "The Mule integration and SOA (service oriented architecture) platform has had more than a million downloads and is in production in more than 2,000 sites worldwide that we know of. These figures have increased exponentially since we created MuleSource to support users worldwide."
He says, "The advantage of open source is that enterprises can download the software and try it out before taking the step to actually deploy it. In Mule's case, this is done by the project developers and architects. However once the decision gets to the CIO or director level, that is when enterprise support becomes essential, particularly large enterprises, where the ESB is the cornerstone of SOA initiatives and integration projects."
Walmart.com is an example of a Mule enterprise user, with Mule providing the messaging backbone to its e-commerce site.
"They are looking for reassurance that there is a legal entity behind the software and a physical company that can provide enterprise-class support 24x7 for such a mission critical deployment. We also offer indemnity, which is often a luxury for open source projects but a valuable legal safeguard for enterprises deploying open source software," Mason says.
Open source professional services firms are racing to compete with proprietary software suppliers. They are raising the quality of their enterprise support, partnering more effectively with proprietary technology suppliers and offering strong links with the open source community. It is only matter of time before more well-known firms fly the flag for open source.