Enterprise inertia holds back open source

TORONTO — Canadian IT managers have to get over their inertia if open source software is to make more headway in the corporate enterprise, experts told the Real World Linux 2004 conference Wednesday.

While open source

software like Linux has made significant inroads in some areas of large companies, like Web servers and databases, most enterprises have shied away from testing open source on mainframes or the desktop, said Anne Lotz-Turner. As the senior advocate for open source with the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA), Lotz-Turner moderated the panel discussion and released findings from an open source survey of CATA members.

For the most part, the CATA findings were positive, with only 13 per cent telling the industry association they have no plans to include open source in their IT strategy. On the other hand, Lotz-Turner said the survey had only attracted “”a few hundred”” responses, and 75 per cent of those were from small or medium enterprises, as opposed to large corporations.

“”That was a little bit disappointing,”” she said, adding that even those who completed the survey were probably open source champions to some degree. “”People don’t generally respond to a survey to say they’re not interested in something.””

John “”maddog”” Hall, who evangelizes open source to a variety of IT audiences as part of Linux International, said it can be extremely difficult to promote new operating systems in an established firm which has few applications, just as it’s difficult to attract software developers who won’t create applications without a large installed base. Linux’s advantage is that it came of age as the Internet did, Hall said, and that it found acceptance in academic environments that tend to do application work in-house for supercomputer projects.

One of open source’s challenges may be demographic, Hall added. For example, there are a growing number of IT people who were not a part of the industry before 1980, and are accustomed to pre-packaged software. In the old days, he pointed out, companies paid for most application development work and afterwards owned the software and could ask others to change it. “”People have forgotten that method of doing work,”” he said. “”They don’t realize that with open source, you can pull down huge quantities of software and spend your money integrating it with your business.””

Joseph Dal Molin, president of e-cology Corp. and the author of a 2003 open source study funded by the federal government, said IT managers have to stop thinking about open source as a set of products and look at it as a way of doing business. There are parallels in health care, he said, where innovation is done in an open forum and is peer-reviewed. Evidence-based medicine, he said, has a number of similarities with open source development.

“”We’ve been conditioned over the years to take sides with vendors as we would hockey teams,”” he said, adding that fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) at the senior executive level have kept open source at the periphery of some IT environments. “”We need to create some FUD-free zones in corporations where you can play with the technology, and not in a skunkworks way.””

Ross Button, vice-president of emerging technology at Montreal-based integrator CGI, said open source’s glass ceiling has traditionally been in the middleware areas of the enterprise, but many IT managers might be willing to give it a second look. Fears of the Y2K bug breathed new life in legacy applications written in COBOL, he said, but many of the systems revived to prepare for Y2K are now up for a refresh.

“”Now as spending goes up, there’s an open source platform available, and they’re considering it,”” he said. “”You’ve also got a number of vendors like IBM and HP behind the technology, so the concerns of support and longevity have been addressed.””

Vendor support may also be critical to addressing the No. 1 concern expressed by the CATA survey respondents about intellectual property, said Hall. Although the SCO Group last year claimed ownership of certain parts of the Linux kernel and has threatened to prosecute some enterprise users, Hall said few IT managers are taking SCO very seriously.

“”If IBM, HP or Sun thought there was any credibility to SCO’s claims, they’d have to be idiots to continue advising their customers to use Linux,”” he said.

Button agreed, adding that IBM and other vendors have “”insulated”” companies like CGI from intellectual property concerns.

Respondents to the CATA survey offered a number of guidelines for colleagues who are thinking about open source, said Lotz-Turner. These included making sure you can calculate the long-term total cost of ownership, evaluating the maturity of some applications and adopting open source on more of a project-by-project basis.

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