The Best Way To Find Out About Open Source: Roll Up Your Sleeves - InformationWeek

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7/1/2005
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The Best Way To Find Out About Open Source: Roll Up Your Sleeves

There are no shortcuts when it comes to making a decision about whether to use open-source software. The good news is that IT managers don't have to endure cringe-worthy sales pitches or marketing materials when weighing their open-source options. Instead, open source allows IT professionals to go straight to the source to help them judge the merits of a particular application. Making a smart choice about open source depends upon your knowledge of the open-source community and how well you know

There are no shortcuts when it comes to making a decision about whether to use open-source software. The good news is that IT managers don't have to endure cringe-worthy sales pitches or marketing materials when weighing their open-source options. Instead, open source allows IT professionals to go straight to the source to help them judge the merits of a particular application. Making a smart choice about open source depends upon your knowledge of the open-source community and how well you know your own IT staff.Potential users need to interact with the support communities for these applications and evaluate the discussion threads exchanged between the application's developers and users. "Another thing to do is download the software, test it out, and send queries to the community," says John Harney president of ASPWatch, a consulting firm for application-hosting companies. This will help users understand what it would actually be like if they were searching for support for an application running in a production environment.

Nothing will tell a potential user more about the possible success or failure of an open-source application than the developer community supporting that application. "They're essentially the guts and the brains of the company," says Harney, who recently wrote a report evaluating nine different open-source content-management systems for a study published by research firm Cutter Consortium. "Think of it as an extended family."

If companies are looking to implement an open-source application solely to save money, they're looking for the wrong reasons, Harney says. "In some cases, they might have to do a lot of customization work on the software, and that eats up the savings," he adds.

In fact, the complexity of implementing and supporting open-source applications within existing IT environments is giving rise to a growing number of companies offering to provide support for specific open-source projects. This is not a new phenomenon. Red Hat has built a very successful business around supplementing and supporting Linux. MySQL AB and JBoss Inc. are doing the same for their respective open-source areas.

Some open-source veterans believe that the model for open-source software vendors, which is to charge customers for services around the implementation and management of free software, will have a profound influence on purveyors of commercial, proprietary software. "Expect to see the larger companies pursue open source and monetize this to keep competitive," says Brian Behlendorf, co-founder of the Apache Web Server Project and founder and chief technology officer of CollabNet Inc., a maker of software helps programmers work in a collaborative environment.

Does this mean that companies such as IBM, Oracle, and Siebel will go on a spending spree to snatch startups already building business models around open source? "Siebel doesn't have to buy SugarCRM, but they need to look at changing their model to become more services oriented," Behlendorf says.

The penetration of open-source applications into large enterprise environments will be slow and start from the ground up. Why would a company that's already invested $1 million on a software package consider replacing that software at all, much less with an open-source alternative? They first need to get their money's worth out of their existing investment. Likewise, commercial, proprietary software will continue to be the norm in places where users aren't used to doing their own programming, Behlendorf says. This is the case primarily with complex, high-end ERP offerings and on the desktop, where most people don't bother to do their own coding because of their reliance on Microsoft.

Where do you see open-source software fitting into your business and how do you plan to find the right package?

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