The open source decision

Changing perceptions and more vendor support are paving the way for open source in both large and small enterprises. But size does matter, and larger enterprises are likely to turn to open source for different reasons than an SMB.Overall, Large enterprises seem more inclined than small ones to consider open source, said Michael O’Neil, managing director of Info-Tech Research Group’s Indaba division in Toronto. But there’s a tsunami of difference between U.S. and Canadian organizations with more than 500 employees. Large enterprises in the U.S., for example, were far more likely to consider open source as the “best approach,” while those with less than 500 employees didn’t have much difference in attitude on either side of the border.

“It’s generally thought that if open source is going to have an impact at an application level, it’s probably going to need some penetration in the SMB market,” said O’Neil. Larger enterprises don’t only consider costs, but how they’re going to maintain the environment, ensure data consistency and avoid leaving security holes in their infrastructure. And they’re concerned if they change the user interface to something different, costs, training and support could go through the roof.

In smaller enterprises, there’s more flexibility to play with open source.

“(They) are maybe in a position where they can better afford to roll the dice,” said O’Neil. “In a large organization, introducing risk into your environment to save a couple of dollars is probably not something you’re going to consider.”

An odd environment
Initial adoption will likely take place low in the stack and start sneaking out into more regularly used applications. As a result, it’s likely that open source will evolve faster in SMBs than in large accounts, though large accounts may be more likely to run pilots.

“Canada is an odd environment in terms of enterprise because small and medium-sized business is by far the largest segment of the computing public but it also tends to be the most frugal,” said Reuven Cohen, co-founder and chief technologist of Enomaly Open Source Consulting in Toronto. “Then you look at other industries like the banking industry, where five banks represent 50 or 60 per cent of the country-wide IT expenditures.” It’s different than in the U.S., he said, where it’s a little more diversified.

Enomaly was formed just over three years ago, when a group of open source consultants decided there was more work coming in than any sole individual could do. At that point, the vast majority of work was coming from the U.S., focused on content management. Over time, the consulting group has seen an increase in interest from Canadian-based companies, particularly large corporations and start-ups. For example, it’s rolling out a large content management system for Manulife and redeveloping the Odeon and Viva Web sites for Alliance Atlantis.

While Cohen says there’s definitely been more interest in open source lately, Canada is still lagging in its adoption in comparison to the U.S. and Europe. One issue is that many large enterprises are entrenched in proprietary technology. Manulife, for example, was traditionally an IBM shop, and although IBM is one of the largest proponents of open source, it’s also the gatekeeper to Manulife’s infrastructure and has been a limiting factor in the adoption of open source within that organization.

“You have entrenched companies that don’t want to rock the boat,” said Cohen. Instead of evaluating the technology on its own merit, for example, they figure if what they’re using it’s not broke, why bother to fix it?

“Technology is something that’s always changing, but there’s a reluctance for a lot of big companies to make any major changes when it comes to systems,” he said. “So they often are forced to.” That was the case with Manulife, he said, where it had a proprietary content management system in place
Manulife turned to Enomaly for a customized solution. “If we as a consulting company disappear, the code is still fully open,” said Cohen. “They have the ability to manage and upgrade it.”Eventually there will be more demand for open source, he said, but the problem right now is with entrenched CIOs. “They don’t want to do any major shifts in methodologies and approaches at this point in their careers,” he said. “On the flip side you have these young hotshot CIOs that are in their 30s who want to do things the Web 2.0 way.”

One small company with only a dozen employees, called 49st, is using open source to take advantage of Web 2.0. A local event portal, 49st is re-launching its Web site using open source apps. The eight-year-old firm developed four previous sites using proprietary technology.

“After every release of a new site I became more and more interested in not recreating the wheel,” said Rob Imrie, CEO and founder of 49st in Toronto. “Knowing how technology and the Web had evolved, I knew there was more out there.” In this new Web 2.0 world, he said, return on investment is higher because of faster time to market, more flexibility and lower costs.

“This new technology is enabling small companies like us to be quick and nimble and respond to market demand and power some of these Web 2.0 tools,” he said. “It really allows us to focus on the areas of development that are core to our business.”

The company provides a local event portal for Toronto, but it’s now launching in 10 major Canadian markets, with long-term plans for an additional 70 markets, eventually moving into the U.S. and possibly international markets. Six-week release cycles will feature additions such as personalization.

It first outsourced development, but has since brought it in-house. “You need the control when you’re small and you’re in rapid development,” said Imrie. “You need to have someone sitting within eye sight.”

There are different reasons why a large enterprise would turn to open source versus a small or mid-sized business, said Evan Leibovitch, executive director of CLUE (Canadian Linux Users Exchange). In some cases it’s a matter of deployment and licensing issues, while in other cases it’s simply a matter of flexibility.

Smaller businesses, meanwhile, have a whole new set of tools available to them that may not be considered by enterprises, said Leibovitch, but could be useful in SMB environments, such as open source databases.

But a lot of firms only consider open source when it’s time to upgrade. Operating systems by and large are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, he said, and not everyone needs a lot of new features, so it’s often difficult to make a case for buying a new version of an operating system. So Linux upgrade cycles tend to be fairly smooth, he said, and in some cases quite transparent.

Linux isn’t the only foot in the door for open source. Firefox and OpenOffice have brought open source into the public eye and the stigma behind it is evaporating. “Firefox and Mozilla are not as easy to beat down as Netscape because the production model is not the same, the forces driving it are not the same,” said Leibovitch. “And the same thing is happening with OpenOffice.”

As time goes on, people who’ve been resistant to change are moving on or retiring. One of the bigger obstacles is simply inertia. “People (are) used to doing things in a certain way with a certain vendor,” he said. “And although there are good reasons to switch, there may not be compelling reasons to switch.”

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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