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Accenture jumps into open source in a big way

Microsoft partner rarely gets credit for its open-source involvement, but not the case in this CNET interview.

Even as CIOs accelerate adoption of open source in an effort to trim costs and improve innovation, the world's top system integrators (SIs) have largely played it safe on the sidelines. Accenture, given its close partnership with Microsoft, has perhaps been one of the most conservative SIs when it comes to open source.

Or so it has appeared. Despite a partnership with SpringSource, an open-source infrastructure leader, Accenture's open-source activities have largely gone unnoticed. Even Accenture's Innovation Center for Open Source, a collaboration with Red Hat and other open-source vendors, was more whispered about than promoted.

I caught up with Alex Wied, senior manager at Accenture and head of its Innovation Center for Open Source, and Tony Roby, partner in Accenture's Global Architecture and Core Technologies group, to find out what, exactly, Accenture has been doing with open source, and how the global consulting firm expects to use open source going forward. They collaborated on the answers to my questions below.

Accenture is not the first company that comes to mind when one thinks of open source. After all, you have a joint venture with Microsoft and have been pretty quiet on open source. Is open source alive and well at Accenture? If so, what are the areas of focus for Accenture?

I'm curious to find out why that is the case! Accenture has strong relationships with many leading technology companies--that is what our clients expect.

Open source is growing within both Accenture and our client base. We continue to be substantial users of open source, particularly in custom Java development, and our focus is expanding beyond this space to cover the gamut of open source portals, content management, business intelligence and data management. We also continue to contribute to open-source projects where we expect the results to benefit our clients.

Is open source client-led or Accenture-led? Meaning, are your customers asking for it or are you embracing open-source solutions for your own reasons? If so, what are those reasons? If clients are asking for it, what reasons do they cite?

It's a mixture. There is a tremendous amount of education still to be done regarding open source. We have clients who still have policies not to use open source at all; others who want to use open source wherever possible. But the majority is in between: they are open to using whatever makes most sense from a technical and commercial perspective.

What is clear is that the current economy is driving many who were ambivalent about open source to explore its potential more closely. Regardless of the economic environment, Accenture is a strong open-source advocate and will continue to work with our clients to help them achieve business benefits with it.

Is "vendor lock-in" a serious concern for your clients? If they had to choose between zero cost and 100 percent lock-in or a hefty cost and no lock-in, which would they choose? Or is that even a fair question?

Yes and no. No one wants to be locked in, particularly if that lock in results in ever-increasing expenditure that is disconnected from the value being realized.

But our clients in general look for a balance. "One throat to choke" is high up in the requirements for making major technology investments and is often prioritized over "lock-in." Also, in the context of very large projects, the cost of the software compared to everything else is frequently a small part of the equation.

Nevertheless, we are seeing a noticeable increase in the use of open source, driven largely by the "free" aspect. Few are fooled by the notion of open source being free (as in no cost): lower cost, flexibility and the ability to be supported at modest cost are key drivers of the increased uptake.

Are there particular open-source projects that are of interest to you/Accenture? Which ones, and why?

We do a lot of work with the Spring Framework, so I would say that has historically had the bulk of our interest. That said, we have people active in a number of community projects and we are making increasing use of Alfresco, Liferay, and Talend, to name a few in the technology area.

In the functional area, Moodle is one project which we are seeing a lot of interest in and in which we have a couple of pretty decent-sized implementations within our Talent & Organizational Performance practice.

Tell me about Accenture's Innovation Center for Open Source. What is its purpose, and how are you doing against your goals for it? How does one come to be considered for the center?

We launched the Accenture Innovation Center for Open Source about 12 months ago. The goal of the center is to use Accenture's best innovation, skills and solutions, in cooperation with our network of vendors and expert communities, to show clients how open-source solutions--assessed and tested by the center--can work in simulated environments. The center also hosts workshops to help clients create innovative solutions to business problems using open-source technologies.

Over time, we'd like to bring more like-minded open-source projects and companies together to provide "complete stack" solutions that we can take to clients.

At this point, we have been far focused primarily on building a center of expertise around all of the most enterprise-relevant open source projects and companies. I think we have all of those identified, but we're open to speaking with others.

How does an Accenture consultant engage with open source today? Is there a central body within Accenture that decides which projects are OK to use, and which are not? Are consultants free to use whichever open-source projects that they wish? What are the guidelines?

A couple of years ago, we instituted an open-source policy regarding the use of open source on client projects. That is our basic governance and it ensures that both Accenture and our clients are completely aware of the open source being used, that any participation with or contribution to the communities is transparent, and that it is properly approved.

We don't encourage the use of obscure open source: we look for open source that is well established and that, ideally, has a commercial entity behind it that can provide support, training, indemnification and other services.

Our people are encouraged to participate in open-source communities, but within the context of our overall policies on client confidentiality and protection of intellectual property.

Are you seeing particular industries embracing open source more than others?

Government, high tech, communications, and financial services tend to stand out. Adoption and interest also varies by geography. But really, everyone uses it. We see more open source software in those industries that have more custom software development. Where packaged software is more predominant, breaking in with open source is more challenging.

Accenture makes a great deal of customizations on behalf of customers, both to proprietary software and, I would assume, to open-source software. Do you contribute those back and, assuming not (because of client confidentiality agreements), what do you think it would take to enable Accenture to do so?

Accenture is very open to contributing back to the open-source community. We did so with our contributions to Spring Batch, which we continue to support.

However, we really don't customize the open-source software that we use. Where we do develop extensions that we think are valuable, we'll work with the client to contribute it. The reality is, our client base is extremely protective of its intellectual property and the notion of contributing is still new to many of them.

Look into the future five years. Where do you see Accenture going with open source?

We are going to continue to use open source wherever it makes business sense and when our clients request it. Over the past couple of years, the diversity of the open-source implementations we have done has increased dramatically and I only see that growing.

Open-source software is firmly established as a real alternative to traditionally-licensed software. It's become part of the fabric of the industry, and Accenture will be a part of that.

If I needed any additional reasons not to judge a book by its cover (or an Accenture by its open source-related press releases), this interview provides yet another. Accenture is deeply involved in open source, but hasn't seen the need to make a lot of noise about it. Its clients likely appreciate this...

...just as they appreciate the cost savings, innovation, and productivity gains open-source software delivers to them.

Disclosure: I am an Alfresco employee.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.