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Start-ups team to push open-source boundaries

A fledging consortium of open-source management companies looks to shake up the industry as incumbent vendors try to get on board.

A handful of start-ups are trying to upset the stodgy world of enterprise systems management software with open source and a more democratic approach to setting industry standards.

The Open Management Consortium, founded in May, is a grouping of small companies seeking to bring open-source business models to systems management, an area dominated by larger companies.

Although it is still fledging, the organization is already in discussion with larger software providers to join the group and support it financially, said William Hurley, a co-founder of the consortium and chief technology officer of start-up Qlusters.

"Between now and the end of the year, at least two major systems management vendors and two big software companies are going to join OMC, and they will be joining in a monetary way," Hurley said.

He added that systems management companies are expected to donate code to advance the effort.

The creation of the OMC is an indicator of how entrepreneurs are trying to spread the open-source business model to enterprise systems management. Already, open source has left an indelible mark in many fields, such as operating systems and databases.

Administrators use systems management software to monitor company networks to spot problems and track performance of hardware. The multibillion-dollar market is dominated by Hewlett-Packard, IBM, BMC Software and CA. Microsoft is also investing heavily in this area.

But several smaller companies are trying to attract customers with cheaper and simpler products than the heavy-duty "frameworks" that larger incumbent vendors provide.

"Systems management is a very old, somewhat stale segment of the software industry. When you go to large (customer) companies, you don't hear about open source," Hurley said.

Established products typically cost tens of thousands of dollars and focus on large-scale networks. Companies such as Qlusters and competitor Hyperic are trying to design products that aren't as sophisticated as high-end wares but are still functional enough to handle many common tasks.

"There is an entire class of users that the systems management world has effectively ignored with (the growing number of) commodity x86 (server) boxes," Hurley said.

On Monday, Qlusters, founded in 2001, will announce an update to its openQRM open-source product, which can manage virtual machines using software from Xen, VmWare, QEMU and Linux Vserver. Virtualization software allows someone to run more than one instance of an operating system on a single machine.

The company's business model is to make the software freely available and provide subscription-based services support, legal indemnification and regular updates.

By the end of the year, Qlusters will release a higher-end enterprise version of openQRM, which will cost $1,250 per managed server.

Other open-source management tools include Hyperic HQ, OpenNMS and Nagios, which is commercialized by GroundWork.

Current members of the Open Management Consortium include open-source projects such as Nagios, Webmin, Zenoss, Emu Software's NetDirector, Qlusters openQRM and Symbiot's openSIMS.

New approach to standards
Though it's still early, these open-source projects and vendors could have a significant impact on entrenched management vendors, RedMonk analyst Michael Cote said in a blog entry.

"I have no doubt that the open-source systems management crew has and will have the technology to do it: The real question is if they can change the culture of enterprise systems management to buy from them," he wrote.

He recommended that larger established vendors participate in the effort to drive standards, noting that there is currently a split between two rival and overlapping Web services management standards.

In addition to making viable open-source management products, the management consortium intends to improve industry standardization, which should lead to greater interoperability between different products. For example, a developer could create a plug-in application to share performance information between different network monitoring programs.

Hurley said he intends to involve customers more in the Open Management Consortium. He argued that management-related standards efforts until now have been dominated by vendors.

"They always think that this storage management standard will be better than the last three, but the process doesn't change," he said. "The only way to change is to the give the system administrator in the NOC (network operations center) an equal voice."

Hurley said the consortium is now setting up the computing infrastructure, including a Web site to host code and forums, to handle communication among members.

Existing systems management products are typically too expensive and do not adequately address small and medium-size companies, said Scott Abel, founder and CEO of Spiceworks, a network monitoring start-up.

But Abel noted that providing the source code to management software doesn't necessarily suit the needs of IT administrators at smaller companies. Downloading the source code of a product, compiling it and installing it can be a significant time commitment.

"A lot of times as an industry we gloss over the cost of implementation and time and effort (of installing open-source products), which is significant," Abel said. "It's a little misleading when they say 'free.'"