Fears About Open Source are Real

In the IT enduser community, the idea of Open Source brings with it a plethora of elation as well as fear. Ask anyone who is an IBM AS/400 and they will tell you that they are stuck in their for life – at least until they decide to get out of what they put themselves into.

Yes, IBM AS/400 (rebranded as IBM System i in 2006 and subsequently replaced by the IBM Power System line) is a very stable platform. The many applications developed for it are rock solid, enterprise-class software that do what they are meant to do. Throughout its period of reincarnation (1988 to present), the hardware and software may have changed but IBM made sure the applications are transplanted. 

I am digressing so let me paraphrase one CIO comment about their AS/400 investment. “We are stuck and we know we are paying through the nose but we have no alternative today!”

Distributed Computing (DC) arose partly in response to the need to get out of the mainframe and mini-computer era of vendor lock-in. Little did we know that while DC hailed the arrival of an army of vendors offering competing and complementary systems, the liberation was partial – because many of the initial technologies created in support of DC are proprietary in nature. Sure they are able to talk to other vendor’s solutions but this is because application programming interface (API) were built to allow for some semblance of interoperability.

Enter Open Source. The idea that a program’s code is freely available to the end-user community to use and modify to suite a particular need. Can a software company survive giving away its software? Red Hat thinks so. In fact, within the Open Source community, Red Hat is a testament to the idea that you can give away copies of your software (even if it was originally conceived by someone else), make money and prosper.

SUN Microsystems is another company that is heavy into the Open Source momentum. But whereas RedHat is 100% open source, SUN still has technology that is proprietary – afterall, SUN started life in the proprietary world. It can be argued that JAVA was SUN’s first experiment in Open Source. Thankfully, the JAVA community thrives today despite competition.

As with all things, proven or otherwise, there are skeptics. In human nature, the biggest fear is always that of the unknown. For many enterprises whose businesses depend on the smooth running of mission-critical applications, the high price associated with proprietary hardware, middleware or operating systems, custom application, and availability of skilled resources is a bitter sweet pill that they’d readily swallow.

The adage that thrives in these environments is “better the devil you know”. Which validates what Tom Zack, general manager of sales for Asia Pacific at Red Hat recently said over lunch. “Open Source means free so I can’t get support.”

Although there are differences in how some Open Source software licenses are executed, by and large, people are free to use Open Source. You can modify an application created on Open Source and you are encouraged – not forced – to freely donate any enhancements you’ve made with the code. This is the nature of Open Source.

The problem becomes one of support. If I were to use an Open Source application, what support can I expect? This is where the conundrum lies. There is an adequate supply of help (a.k.a. community support) available on the Internet for most of the Open Source software that lives out there. The problem is sometimes there is more than one way to fix a problem. For companies that depend on software to run their business, would you be willing to try each of those fixes in the hopes of landing the right one? If you are a bank, you probably don’t want to risk losing your customers or explaining to a regulatory body why your application died while doing a routine bank deposit transaction.

There are also cases where companies, attracted by the very low, sometimes free, price tags that come with Open Source application, dive head on into the technology only to discover that they don’t have the internal skill sets needed to support the Open Source programs that were introduced. They will probably end up spending more money on Open Source than they would with proprietary software. Oops!

Zack believes that if the only reason why a company would switch to Open Source is to save on the acquisition cost of the software, then “they are missing the point! Open Source gives companies greater freedom to choose what technologies will work best for them,” said Zack.

And in some sense, this is true. If you are an Oracle, SAP or Microsoft user, ask yourself this question. “Do you ever feel locked-in to the platform you’ve chosen because (1) the closed system you purchased is purported to work best with software from the same vendor; (2) the vendor plays lip service to the notion of supporting other platforms but is quick to point a finger to the other party when something does not quite work out the way it should; or (3) you fear that introducing other systems to the homogeneous environment raises issues like risks and uncertainties – which is what FUD is all about? If you are, you may need to evaluate your understanding of Open Source and be more open minded about what others have to say.

The fight for Open Source continues and players from both sides are spending money to win the game.

The good news for vendors like Red Hat is that the financial crisis will force the hand of companies that find themselves with shrinking IT budgets, limited resources available, and a management that is more open to the idea of taking some risks in favor of long-term survival.

In the meantime, industry associations like FOSSBazaar, an HP-led Linux Foundation working group, are tasked with working to replace fear of open source with knowledge and best practices.

History has proven that knowledge, understanding, and common sense will eventually prevail. The Open Source community will gain grounds with each passing day. There will be setbacks but these will be more than offset by new developments and effort in the drive towards wider adoption of Open Source.

In the meantime, proprietary software vendors like Microsoft, Oracle and SAP will, in all likelihood, be quietly developing new versions of software, if not totally new business models, that will in some ways offset the threat of the Open Source movement.

These vendors will need to keep justifying their higher margins using the promise of ‘fair pricing practices’ to justify the high cost of not only licensing their software (yes, its licensing, you don’t own the software because the vendor owns the IP) and the maintenance/support fees that come with each solution.

As for companies like Red Hat that make their bread and butter on selling software and service by way of subscription, they have to be always on their toes. Open Source is a double edge sword. Yes, Red Hat’s prices are lower compared to Microsoft but then there is always someone who can offer software at cheaper prices – like free. The good and bad news is that there are more Red Hats out in the market than Microsofts. Which means that to keep customers, customer satisfaction must be high on the daily operating agenda of the software vendor.

So if your business is looking to try Open Source, Zack recommends trying the hard proven approach to anything new in IT: start small, get familiar with the kinks, evaluate the results, and make your move from there.

Sound advise to me!