Open source @ SAIC: Wayne Waddoups speaks

What do you get when you mix free open source software with an $8.2 billion systems integrator? The answer is "even more money," as this third installment in the Open Source @ Series shows.

Last week The Open Road caught up with Justin Steinman @ Novell and Mike Olson @ Oracle to discover how open source factors into these companies' businesses. This time, we're switching gears a bit to talk with a company that sells services around software - both open source and proprietary - rather than a software company.

Being familiar with the interesting open source work happening at SAIC, I decided to talk with two members of its Open Source Community of Practice: Ryan Brunton, a developer within SAIC's Open Source Community of Practice, and Wayne Waddoups, vice president of Strategy, SAIC Office of Technology. SAIC has long worked with projects like Linux and MySQL, but it's the cutting edge work it's doing with open source applications and infrastructure that caught my eye. More to the point, and more to Wayne's and Ryan's response, I wanted to know how open source helps SAIC build its business.

Just as enterprise software vendors have their P&Ls tied to proprietary software (making adoption of open source more difficult than it otherwise would be), so, too, do tier-one systems integrators like SAIC, Accenture, etc. How does SAIC view open source, given revenues of $8.2 billion that might well point it back to proprietary software?

Wayne and Ryan write:

As part of being a platform-agnostic solutions developer, our people are keenly focused on brokering best value and developing what we, together with our customers, see as the optimal path "From Science to Solutions." We are very aware of the fact that in many cases open source software can help our systems developers to provide better value, faster, and with improved functionality, versus taking a proprietary software-only approach. open source represents another valuable tool in the SAIC systems integrator toolbox that helps our leading scientists, engineers, and developers advance solutions for customers.

Open source solutions are an excellent fit for a systems integrator like SAIC for numerous reasons. First and foremost among those reasons is flexibility. When designing and implementing enterprise systems solutions, it is rare that any one product or even any one stack will be perfectly suited to the unique issues presented by a customer. Open source solutions offer SAIC an alternative to forcing square pegs into round holes.

In addition, the overhead for discovering an ideal product fit is much lower, because our engineers and developers can prototype solutions using competing open source technologies without the attendant cost of changes that would be present had the technologies been licensed from a proprietary vendor. Without this cost hanging over the project, managers have more flexibility to change products in use midstream to better suit customer needs rather than stubbornly providing a solution the customer doesn't want.

Another major advantage for us is cost. Most arguments made by proprietary software vendors about "real" cost and ROI (return on investment) break down in the enterprise integration space, as the products in use require a level of expertise far beyond that of the average user. In fact, the need for this knowledge is what keeps systems integrators like us in business.

When facing licensing and training costs soaring into the tens of thousands of dollars for proprietary software on even relatively small projects, the appeal of open source solutions from a cost perspective is hard to deny. They enable us to redirect money that would otherwise be spent on licensing fees into top-tier support from open source vendors like Red Hat and MySQL. This training of our personnel eases our operations and maintenance (O&M) burden and increases our effectiveness on current and future efforts.

Transparency is another advantage lauded by many of our developers when working with open source products. Too often, hours are lost searching help forums and bug tracking sites for proprietary software answers to why a particular method or feature of a product behaves in an undocumented fashion or just doesn't work at all. Once the problem is tracked down, the developers are at the mercy of the vendor's trouble ticket system, waiting for a solution to the problem.

With open source, our tools for tracking the problem don't stop with the forums, or even the numerous Internet relay chat (IRC) channels available for most products, but continue right to the debugger on the developer's desktop. Once problems are found, our developers have the option, which has been exercised on several large projects in the past, of patching the code ourselves. The faster issues are discovered and fixed, the more likely we are to complete projects within time and budget constraints while keeping our customers happy.

To ensure that we are identifying open source opportunity areas, we have a large open source Community of Practice within the company. The practice helps facilitate identifying best-of-breed solutions, sharing best practices, and identifying pockets of expertise both inside and outside the company that match our customers? needs.

Within the federal marketplace, our open source practice sees a growing number of specialized market segments where the open source community is helping to address development needs that remain largely unmet by retail software providers. We see this occurring as the open source model fosters users' ability to flexibly self-serve in addressing specialized development needs. The opportunities for applying open source elements and development efforts should continue to increase with adoption and as more retail solutions come to market compatible with, or based on, common open source building blocks.

UPDATE: Regarding open source use at SAIC....Our developers are constantly reviewing trade-offs and assessing fit for using most common open source solutions (e.g., Linux, Apache, MySQL, JBOSS, Tomcat, Python, Eclipse, OpenSSL, Subversion, Ruby, all the Java frameworks, etc.) as well as many less well-known solutions specifically tailored to their different customer communities.

SAIC is a smart company. Clearly, there's something to this open source phenomenon that would drive it to place a bet on expanding its billions in revenues with free software. I especially like the thought that open source drives greater transparency which is traditionally associated with open source, but seeing how an SI derives benefit from such transparency is interesting.

In our next installment I'll be talking with BMC, a company that hasn't traditionally made much noise around open source, but has recently opted to up its adoption (and profile) with the hire of Will Hurley. Watch this space....

Emphasis above in SAIC's submission was made by me for ease of navigation through its entry.

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