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Commentary: An open-source plan

Smart developers can build applications quickly, using open-source components, but companies need to know how well supported and legally risky they are, Forrester says.

Commentary: An open-source plan
By Forrester Research
Special to CNET
April 14, 2004, 11:00AM PT

By Ted Schadler, vice president

Open-source software's biggest benefit is that it is freely available, which means that smart developers will be constantly experimenting with components that help them build applications faster.

But companies putting business-critical applications into production must also know that their open-source components are well-supported and free from intellectual-property concerns. Forrester's open-source "adoption funnel" provides a simple decision framework to help IT executives decide when to put up decision filters, which key stakeholders to include along the way and what additional risks must be considered at each stage.

This five-stage framework balances the open-source innovation opportunities against the requirements of production systems:

Open-source components are freely available. Developers who have been given a job to do should be free to search through the 70,000 open-source components available via the Internet to find what they need.

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The payoff is faster development cycles--and often a higher-quality result. An approved component list at this stage is a fool's errand; it will just encourage developers to ignore it when they're experimenting on their own time.

Open-source communities support developers online. With open-source components, development managers can relax, knowing that developers can support themselves through online frequently asked questions, newsgroups and "wiki" forums--often moderated by the engineers who built the component. In the words of one development manager, "I trust the support and the result, because we're talking to the guy who wrote the code."

Don't overlook lifetime costs. The pilot stage is a funding step for business-critical projects. In this funding stage, information technology executives must factor in the lifetime costs of integrating, testing and maintaining a system assembled from commercial, home-built, and open-source components. Because open-source components come from independent communities, they can carry more integration and upgrade risk than can their commercial counterparts.

Wait for commercial support--or fund your own. Before putting a business-critical system into production, the CIO must be able to assure the business owner of high reliability and throughput. At this stage, open source starts to look a lot like commercial software. A chief information officer must know who's on the hook, when a system crashes at 2 a.m.--a commercial provider like Hewlett-Packard, IBM or Novell; a component supplier like Sun Microsystems or JBoss; or an internal, round-the-clock support team.

Invest in the community to get what you want. Before making an open-source component an enterprise standard, the standards team must know that the component will be supported--and competitive--in five years. The best way to ensure that is to invest in the community behind an open-source component. How? Either by contributing code yourself or by paying a provider like MySQL or JBoss to do it for you.

Companies' procurement practices for commercial providers are well established, but their open-source procurement practices are either ad hoc or missing. IT organizations should use the open-source adoption funnel as a simple tool to help make better decisions about open-source components.

Forrester's advice to CIOs?

• Don't shut off open-source experimentation prematurely. Shutting off downloads to keep open source out of production systems is like telling developers to work with one hand tied behind their back. Why?

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Because open-source components cut time and cost out of application development. Let developers experiment, learn and propose the components they think will make the project run best.

• Make the pilot stage the critical decision point. Still, you must put controls into the funnel to keep disputed or risky components out of production. The pilot or funding stage is the best place to do that. Force your development teams to keep an inventory of new, open-source components so that you can vet them for acceptable licenses and quality before fully funding the project.

• Arm your open-source advisory group with the funnel and decision tools. Fund a multidisciplinary team comprised of developers, managers, lawyers and procurement specialists to evaluate the risks of an open-source component and community. Quantitative assessment tools can help companies make informed decisions about the health of the community and the quality of the commercial support.

Open-source software will disrupt commercial software markets with low-cost, good-enough components. That means that software vendors watch nervously, as open-source components like JBoss and MySQL move into their core markets. These same vendors also use open source as a weapon for disrupting markets that they don't control. For example, SAP supports MySQL, precisely because it wants to commoditize the database tier. And IBM supports Eclipse, precisely because it doesn't dominate the developer tools market. But vendors will find ways to adapt their business practices to respond to open-source software. Look for these trends:

• Independent software vendors will exploit dual-license strategies to open their own adoption funnels. Software licenses can differ, based on how the software is used. For example, MySQL uses the General Public License to make the MySQL database freely available to developers and a commercial license to collect money from companies that deploy an application on MySQL. Look for vendors like IBM and Sun to explore this option for software like Cloudscape and NetBeans that opens developer doors.

• Vendors will also compete aggressively, using open-source scare tactics. BEA Systems, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and others will sell against open-source license, support and integration risks to protect their core markets. Firms should weigh vendors' legitimate arguments against a rational decision process, based on a quantitative assessment.

• Systems integrators will sell services to help companies mitigate open-source risks. Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, Electronic Data Systems and others will help their clients evaluate open-source components and institute open-source decision processes. Companies should take advantage of these providers' expertise but should not expect any service provider to have all the answers to tough open-source questions about license exposure or code forking.

© 2004, Forrester Research, Inc. All rights reserved. Information is based on best available resources. Opinions reflect judgment at the time and are subject to change.