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Commentary: SCO can't slow open source

Despite the furor surrounding the SCO Group's lawsuits over Linux, a Forrester study indicates that companies have not been deterred from adopting open-source technology.

    Commentary: SCO can't slow open source
    By Forrester Research
    Special to CNET
    March 18, 2004, 4:00PM PT

    By Ted Schadler, vice president

    Despite the furor surrounding the SCO Group's lawsuits over Linux, companies have not been deterred from adopting open-source technology.

    Forrester recently surveyed 140 large North American companies. While 39 percent will avoid open source for now, 60 percent (85 companies) are adopting open source. Half of those companies are using it for mission-critical applications. Of the technologies used, Linux and Apache lead the list, but MySQL and Tomcat are close behind.

    The survey results speak loudly that open source is in the mainstream and here to stay. Additionally, open-source software:

    • Means more than just Linux. Firms cite Linux and Apache as the open-source products they use the most, but they're also bringing in the MySQL database and Tomcat Java servlet engine. Why? Open-source components keep getting better, as a virtuous cycle of developer downloads, interests and contributions make them good enough to challenge commercial alternatives--at a vastly lower entry price.

    • Runs on low-cost hardware. Ninety-four percent of open-source users either run or plan to run on Intel or Advanced Micro Devices-based hardware--where a $5,000 Dell server runs workloads that a $50,000 Unix box ran just three years ago.

    While open-source components are often available for any operating system, Forrester believes that ever-improving Intel price performance is an important driver of open-source adoption.

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    The ability to run Unix workloads at Intel prices is one reason that chief information officers such as are driving their organizations toward Linux and open source.

    • Handles mission-critical workloads. Linux may not be ready for high-end transaction systems or "earned in blood" reliability, but it is certainly ready for mission-critical firewalls and Web applications. And with investments in Linux like those of IBM's pSeries and iSeries teams, Linux is becoming a solid platform for databases and business applications.

    • Is opening Microsoft's desktop lockbox. Twenty-five percent of the open-source using survey respondents--21 of 85--told Forrester that they will evaluate Linux for the desktop this year, and 24 percent say they use or plan to use productivity software.

    Our take? Firms should investigate Linux for single-application desktops like point-of-sale systems or call centers where Microsoft's $500 Windows/Office cost is both burdensome and unnecessary. But most desktop scenarios still call for Microsoft's strong commercial support, broad application availability and revitalized Office System--as well as its promise of "Longhorn."

    Open source can't just be dropped into the existing IT infrastructure; it requires new management processes. The software offers benefits like low acquisition cost, freedom to deploy only the components you need, and hardware choice. But it also comes with new risks, licenses and the community. That means that CIOs bringing in open-source components like Linux or MySQL must take on new responsibilities for sourcing, procurement and open-source policy. In particular, CIOs must build new management processes to:

    • Manage open-source risks. The long-term scenario for Linux is clear: The Linux community will rip and replace any contested code, thus giving you a royalty-free product to use. The real risks are more mundane: Who will support the component? Will your commercial application provider support the upgraded open-source component? Did you inadvertently use a General Public License component in a product that you shipped to a customer?

    CIOs using open source must understand and manage these new risks. They need tools like a component inventory, a license due-diligence process and a community contribution policy.

    • Fund an open-source advisory group. Only 11 percent of the open-source users we surveyed have established a group to help with open-source issues. That borders on criminal neglect in a market where 60 percent of the firms we surveyed are using or planning to use open source. What does an open-source advisory group do?

    A current best practice at companies like Hewlett-Packard, Merrill Lynch and the Weather Channel is to have a multidiscipline team of developers, procurement specialists, lawyers and enterprise architects perform due diligence, recommend products, provide support and establish policies on open-source community contribution.

    • Buy open-source support from a trusted provider. Open-source support comes in many forms: Developers can often get immediate, free assistance from the open-source community itself, and application support comes as vendors see a market open up. But firms can't easily deploy mission-critical applications without around-the-clock production support.

    Fortunately, firms like Red Hat and IBM can provide that kind of support today for Linux, and firms as varied as Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, HP and Novell are building open-source support businesses.

    • Look carefully at open-source integration, maintenance and support costs. Open source is cheap to acquire. But despite our respondents' belief that the total cost of open source is also less than commercial software, experienced users--and Forrester--advise otherwise.

    One CTO with a decade of open-source experience says it's a wash--meaning that the low acquisition cost of open source is offset by somewhat higher integration, maintenance and support costs over its lifetime. So why use open source?

    Two reasons: 1) Open source is the best way to slide Unix workloads down the Intel cost curve; and 2) Open-source aggregators like Red Hat and Novell will compete with commercial providers to deliver the same integration, maintenance and support value--at the same cost.

    © 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.