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Open source's next frontier

Open-source software is starting to expand into the big-ticket infrastructure-software market dominated by Microsoft and others.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
8 min read
Open-source software, increasingly popular with budget-conscious companies, is beginning to expand into a new area: The lucrative infrastructure-software market dominated by industry giants such as Microsoft.

Individual open-source database and other applications are already popular. Now two open-source projects have launched efforts to assemble "stacks" of software applications that offer an open-source equivalent to commercial software from Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, BEA Systems and others.

Last week, a company called Gluecode began selling technical support and maintenance services for a package of infrastructure tools from the Apache Foundation, which oversees and develops some of the most popular open-source software. The package includes portal and database software, and an application server.


What's new:
Open-source projects from the Apache Foundation and the ObjectWeb consortium are creating a full suite of open-source server software components, a field dominated by industry heavyweights such as IBM and Microsoft.

Bottom line:
Open-source represents a fraction of the overall infrastructure software market and products require significant integration. But some companies are stepping in to provide commercial support and challenge the incumbents, if even only on the low end.

More stories on open source versus proprietary software

Then ObjectWeb, a French nonprofit consortium of companies and research bodies launched six years ago, said it will release the eXo Platform. The package includes a corporate Web portal and a content management application, in addition to the connectivity, grid computing and enterprise messaging software the consortium already offers.

Though it's too soon to tell just how much these new stacks will shake up the multibillion-dollar market for back-end software, it's clear there's a growing number of open-source alternatives to commercial software makers' most profitable products.

There's more to come: The Apache Foundation and ObjectWeb are constructing a growing number of Java server software components to rival proprietary applications.

The good news, according to Anne Thomas Manes, an analyst with the Burton Group, is that for almost every major software need, from databases to business applications, there's now an open-source alternative. The bad news? Get ready to do some work yourself.

"You can reconstruct the same thing based on open-source technology, but the challenge is that you have to integrate it yourself. A fair amount of systems integration is necessary to come up with an integrated environment," Manes said.

The benefits of open source include cost savings--buyers typically pay only for support, not for the software itself. There's also little of the haggling over long-term licenses and upgrade rights that comes with commercial software from Microsoft and other companies. Additional applications are easy to plug in as companies grow. And, if needed, the source code is readily available.

Smoothing the way
for open source

The success of platforms
like JBoss, Apache and Jonas
will boost open-source
integration products--if
some key conditions are met.

All sides agree that commercial server software suites will continue to have the most advanced features, at least for the foreseeable future. But the software programmers and entrepreneurs behind these open-source middleware projects intend to compete head-to-head with established providers.

"The new addition of a portal to the ObjectWeb code base provides the missing pieces to get a full stack that becomes a true alternative to proprietary products," said Christophe Ney, executive director of ObjectWeb. "Members were really interested in having more than just an application server."

Ney added that ObjectWeb is developing products usually associated with big-ticket software, such as integration and business process automation software based on the Business Process Execution Language, or BPEL, specification.

No large commercial entity has yet voiced plans to offer support services for an assemblage of ObjectWeb's server components. However, Red Hat started offering services around its Jonas application server earlier this year.

The stack sell
IBM, BEA Systems and Oracle sell commercial versions of Java server software suites, which include a Java application server, a Web portal, integration software and application-development tools. Microsoft offers a similar set of Windows server software built on its .Net development model. This infrastructure software and related tools, which can cost up to hundreds of thousands of dollars to license, form the technical underpinnings for business applications.

Big, commercial technology makers have in recent years recognized a growing demand for open-source alternatives. IBM is already a major contributor to open-source projects, such as Linux, grid computing, and a specialized Java database project called Derby. However, its middleware products, including its WebSphere Java server suite and DB2 database businesses--which generate billions of dollars in revenue--remain proprietary.

BEA has made some of its products open-source in an effort to curry favor with developers. But it relies on its proprietary software to drive revenue.

"The value is moving away from the software itself and going instead to the integration of components," said Martin Fink, vice president for Linux at Hewlett-Packard. The company recently expanded its consulting services for JBoss, MySQL and Linux software running on HP hardware.

The open-source components from ObjectWeb, Apache and commercial company JBoss generally already have a following of software programmers. Adoption within businesses, however, hinges largely on whether there is adequate commercial support behind the products, according to industry analysts and executives.

That's where companies like Gluecode, and start-ups like SpikeSource and SourceLabs, come in. Those companies have founded their business on the notion of selling subscription support services around a certified and integrated package of open-source software.

Gluecode provides support and maintenance services for a bundle of open-source products, which are available under the Apache open-source license. With a suite called Joe, the company sells services for the Geronimo Java application server, Pluto portal software, Derby database, and Agila workflow software.

The company has certified that its stack runs on Intel's IA64 processor, used in server hardware, and it's trying to sign on hardware providers to bundle and distribute the Joe suite. At a price of $3,500 a month for support and regular software updates, Joe will undercut both established Java companies as well as Microsoft, argued Gluecode CEO Winston Damarillo.

"The market is stunted with the cost of software on the server side," Damarillo said. "We're making that zero."

The market is stunted with the cost of software on the server side
--Winston Damarillo, CEO, Gluecode

The Geronimo application server has a modular design, which lets customers install add-on products such as a portal and integration software as needed, he said. Gluecode also sells management software to ease installation and administration.

SpikeSource and SourceLabs both intend to offer services around the so-called "LAMP" stack of open-source software. The stack includes the Linux operating system, the Apache Web server, the MySQL database and PHP development tools.

JBoss, too, sells consulting and support service around freely available software. The company has an application server that is popular with Java programmers, and it's expanding the number of products, including a workflow server, that it develops and supports.

Apache, ObjectWeb and JBoss are each developing separate middleware products based on their respective Java application servers and have different open-source licenses. JBoss recently certified that its software adheres to the Java 2 Enterprise Edition, or J2EE, standard. Geronimo and Jonas are seeking J2EE certification as well.

No dents yet
So far, big commercial software companies deny that open-source alternatives are eating into their market share and profit margins. In fact, Sun Microsystems said it has considered making editions of its Java application server suite available as an open-source product.

Although open-source middleware still accounts for only a fraction of the total market, overall use of open-source applications and of Linux continues to grow. More than 80 percent of big companies surveyed say they have at least some Linux deployed within their organizations, according to market researcher Gartner.

And there's a well-established pattern for open-source adoption. Take Linux for example: First used on commodity hardware servers in the 1990s for simple tasks such as Web or file servers, Linux is now mainstream and provide a low-cost alternative to Unix or Windows for everything from departmental servers to high-end computing and desktop software.

Open-source Java application servers, databases and development tools are also rapidly making their mark. JBoss, which sells support for its namesake application server, and open-source database company MySQL have gained in popularity over just the past year.

The one issue holding back wider acceptance of both Linux and open-source applications is just how much risk big companies are willing to accept, according to a Gartner report issued last month. That risk includes support for a hodgepodge of applications from a variety of sources. That support is what Gluecode and others are looking to provide.

The other problem area is intellectual property and the risk of legal troubles, which will continue to challenge wider growth of Linux and open source over the next five years, Gartner has said. Some companies, including Red Hat and Novell, have begun to offer legal protection for their Linux customers.

Alfred Chuang, CEO of BEA, said earlier this month that open-source Java application servers, notably JBoss, are not taking business away from his company at this point. "We don't see anything in deployments in enterprises at all. It's not in any way or shape a threat to us," he said.

The question is the level of integration across the stack, up and down.
--Martin Taylor, general manager of platform strategy, Microsoft

Martin Taylor, Microsoft's general manager of platform strategy, agreed that once a number of open-source middleware components are assembled, "it starts to look like our stuff." But, he said that most customers do not want to spend the time and effort to integrate low-level software. He noted that companies also need to consider whether packaged applications are certified to run on open-source software.

"It's not a matter of whether something does or doesn't exist in open source," Taylor said. "The question is the level of integration across the stack, up and down, and the amount of work to tune and build on top."

But software that's good enough is finding a home within businesses. And there's likely room for both proprietary and open-source approaches within the same company. Henry Peyret, an analyst at Forrester Research, said that open-source middleware projects typically focus on the low end of the market, rather than pursue the most advanced features, as commercial companies do. As such, open-source products do not always compete directly with established products, he said.

"Some customers recognize that they prefer some good-enough products, even if it does not have all the features," Peyret said. "If they want to have these specific features, they prefer to put in commercial products for that niche, not the overall enterprise."

Going with open-source middleware products does require willingness to accept risk and some in-house technical skills, Manes noted. Open-source projects could conceivably fizzle out, and the reliability of commercial support is not always clear.

"There is a cultural issue as to whether a given company is willing to invest the amount of effort in support and take the risk of using this open-source technology versus going with IBM," she said.