The open source experience

Open source is generally recognized as a platform for infrastructure, the foundation upon which things are built. But the business-specific applications built on top of that are a harder sell.The jury is still out on whether open source is extending into areas beyond its traditional strengths, said Evan Leibovitch, executive director of CLUE (Canadian Linux Users Exchange). “When you have something in your business that you don’t want your competitors to necessarily share, the rationale for open source isn’t quite as strong,” he said.

Open source has traditionally been a good fit with horizontal, rather than vertical, applications – where it stretches across industries, or where there’s a generic function like word processing. But the “high-hanging fruit” is still proprietary, said Leibovitch, and one of the best examples of that right now is Oracle.

While Oracle supports Red Hat Linux, for example, and is comfortable with leaving the creation of the underlying infrastructure to a third party, industry-specific applications are still Oracle’s territory.

“The further you get away from the infrastructure, the harder it is to work with open source,” he said. “You may start to see more of these co-operative ventures, (but) that model is just in its infancy. There’s still a lot of maturing to be done.”

Right now, open source is most commonly used for application development, according to Info-Tech Research Group. “It’s not as if it’s an investment in the infrastructure per se,” said Curtis Gittens, senior research analyst with Info-Tech. “It’s a tool, so the risk there is low.” People will build a non-critical Web application or front-end using Perl or Python.

The second highest level of adoption is within networking and connectivity on the back-end. Following that is security software for access control and management. “It’s not like using an open source version of a McAfee,” said Gittens. “It’s more for access control.”

More Canadians than Americans are adopting open source operating systems, such as Linux. But there is less interest in using open source for financial and administrative applications, particularly in Canada. Areas where it’s emerging include customer relationship management (CRM) and contact management, as well as enterprise resource planning applications. But it hasn’t quite moved into the area of business intelligence yet.

In the health-care sector there’s not that much deployment of open source, at least in Canada, said Dr. Khaled El Emam, associate professor at the University of Ottawa and author of The ROI from Software Quality. Reasons for this include issues of robustness, security and compliance.“I’m not talking about running your Web server,” he said. The health-care sector, for example, has large, complex systems, and the incumbent vendors have been around for many years.

There’s generic open source, such as operating systems, databases, Web services and content management systems. Then there’s domain-specific open source, which requires domain expertise. And if you’re talking about health-care applications, you need people who understand health care. “When we looked at open source for medical applications, a lot of the people developing it did not have a software development background,” said El Emam. “They were physicians, clinicians – it was a different group of people.”

The issue lies with modifying code – whether an organization has the money and development team to maintain millions of lines of code, or whether they should pay for a version that someone else is going to maintain for them.

But awareness is increasing about what good open source can do, said Ross Chevalier, CTO/CIO of Novell Canada. Some users, particularly in academia, are looking at Linux on the desktop because of the cost differential – and the fact there are some good end-user applications out there. It may not be right for 100 per cent of users, he said, such as those using Windows-specific applications, for example. But for generic office users doing generic office things, such as mail and browsing, open source could be a good fit.

For Windsor Public Library, with 200 staff members in 10 branches, open source is becoming standard across the organization, from its public access Internet terminals to back-end systems. The library has about 250 PCs, and uses almost everything, including NetWare, Unix, Solaris, Linux and Windows.

“Our first experience with open source was with our public access Internet terminals,” said Marc Pillon, manager of information technology with Windsor Public Library. “Primarily it’s more bang for the buck – we could deliver to our users more services using open source software for the same amount of money (as) a closed source system.” The library is also experimenting with Suse Linux on the desktop.

“I’m hoping by the end of the year a great majority of our back-end systems will be running on open source software as well as a good portion of desktops, both public access and staff,” he said. In some cases, this could require retraining of staff, but he says the money invested is easily recoverable. For Pillon, it’s about not being tied to any one particular methodology.Down the road, this could expand into an open source library catalogue system, which is already being used in the U.S.

But open source isn’t a fit for everyone. Homestead Christian Care is a non-profit charity providing supportive housing to about 140 people in Hamilton and Woodstock, Ont. For three years it had an entirely open source environment, including Red Hat, as well as OpenOffice as its main office tool. Two years ago, it switched to a Windows environment.

“Originally we went the Linux and open source route because we believed it would be cheaper as a non-profit charity,” said Jeff Neven, director of operations with Homestead Christian Care. “Our stakeholders require we do things the most cost-effective way.” In the end, it was costing the organization more, he said, because Homestead relied on third-party IT support, and downtime was becoming a problem.

“Staff productivity was lower because they didn’t know how to use the software,” he said. “There’s always fixes (to problems), it’s just the downtime. We were at the point where we were looking at hiring someone to provide training and IT.”

Organizations should consider whether an application is appropriate for their environment, said Info-Tech’s Gittens. And that issue applies to any type of software. They should also make sure they have people in-house who understand the software, the language and the architecture of the application, and that the vendor or integrator has adequate support.

“There are still a lot of people that doubt open source even as a mainframe infrastructure component, so it’s not as if that job is finished,” said CLUE’s Leibovitch. The traditional strengths of open source are continuing to make their way into the mainstream, while we’re starting to see pockets of industry-specific applications. But for quite some time we’re going to see “the Oracle model,” he said, where proprietary industry-specific applications sit on top of open source standardized platforms.

“Open source isn’t necessarily the answer to every question,” he said. “I have very little doubt that for most infrastructure needs, open source is the better way to go. The further you get from infrastructure and the closer you get to things that are highly industry or business specific, that’s where things get cloudy.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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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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