Open source feature: Growing up

Once upon a time, technologists sneaked open source software into IT infrastructures under the radar, using it for minor tasks like running print servers. Later, as open source started to become a viable option in other areas, they were more and more eager to find excuses to use it. Now, says David Adams, the onus is on the sceptics to come up with reasons not to use it as open source grows up and enters the mainstream

The early, hippy-ish image of open source technologies faded some years ago, as they were embraced by canny chief information officers (CIOs) and chief technology officers (CTOs) who appreciated the cost and operational efficiencies they can deliver. But progress has been checked, but not stalled, within conservative industries like finance by concerns around the nature of the open source developer 'community'; the reliability and availability of technical support; and perceived difficulties in integrating open source technologies with some commonly used proprietary and legacy systems.

There are intriguing differences in adoption rates around the world, as revealed in the 2009 Actuate Open Source Survey, based on interviews with IT professionals working for financial, manufacturing and public sector organisations in North America, the UK, France, Germany and China. Two thirds (67 per cent) of respondents in France are already using open source, compared to 42.1 per cent in the UK and 41 per cent in the US. In Germany the figure is 60.6 per cent and there is great enthusiasm in China, where 80.3 per cent were using the technology.

But even in the US, says Actuate, the percentage of respondents who
agree that the benefits of open source outweigh its disadvantages is 56.8 per cent, almost seven times the size of the group that disagree (8.4 per cent); and a further ten per cent of US respondents said they were either adopting the technology or planned to do so. Naturally, the global economic downturn has had an influence. More than half of 330 IT executives (including 80 in the financial sector) questioned by IDC on behalf of Novell in February 2009 planned to accelerate adoption of the Linux operating system this year: 72 per cent were evaluating or increasing its use at server level; and 68 per cent at the desktop. While the economic crisis appeared to have had the biggest influence on decision makers in the Americas and in the financial and government sectors, 62 per cent of all respondents faced some kind of budgetary constraint.

Benefits and trends
Malcolm Herbert, director at the EMEA strategy and solutions office for Red Hat, does not believe cheaper costs is always the prime motive behind most open source use in the financial sector, although it obviously helps. "Linux as an operating system, and for some business applications, always
offers performance advantages," he says. "We are seeing customers attracted not just through the subscription model versus licensing, but also through operational efficiency. Also, the subscription model uses operational expenditure, rather than capital expenditure." But even if open source is not always the immediate cheapest or strongest performing option, it has another attractive attribute - namely, flexibility in terms of availability, scalability and the fact it doesn't lock you into working with a single vendor. "Open source means you don't need to know where you're going to be in ten years' time," says Herbert. "Open source vendors won't tie you into the technology. That's a strong message for CIOs and CTOs."

Access to the source code also helps, says Graham Miller, CEO at Marketcetera, which provides an open source platform for strategy-driven trading. "Firms want to move away from proprietary, closed systems that don't permit them to control and adapt their mission critical infrastructure," he says. "Open source fits today's climate because firms can look under the hood to see what they are getting for their investment."

More large companies are using Linux on IBM mainframes, according to research published in the summer by CA, which questioned 100 companies with annual revenues of $2 billion or above. "Of the financial companies
I talk to, more than 50 per cent are doing something new with Linux," says Milton Whitham, vice-president, software engineering, in CA's mainframe business unit. "These include some very large US banks. Some say they can reduce the cost of services to business units by 50 per cent using mainframe Linux. Before, customers were looking for file or print services, document conversions, web forms and servers when they talked about open source. What's interesting is the kinds of workloads we're seeing migrating now. You have enterprise resource planning (ERP) migrating to Linux."

Almost half of those questioned for the Novell/IDC survey said virtualisation was driving Linux adoption and 88 per cent planned to evaluate, deploy or increase use of virtualisation software over the next 12 to 24 months. Open source has also made significant inroads in desktop virtualisation. It has found its way into trading processes too, as in Marketcetera's Strategy Studio, which allows high frequency traders to create, test, deploy, scale and analyse the effectiveness of strategies. "I think you will see open source extend more broadly through commoditised infrastructure components like feed handlers," says Marketcetera's Miller. "Firms are clear about what they consider to be their competitive advantage - usually their proprietary trading logic or algorithms. Everything else will get open-sourced; it's just a question of time."

Open source content management is proving particularly popular. "Our stuff is being used for mission-critical applications in Asia-Pacific, continental Europe and the USA," says John Powell, president and CEO at content management specialist Alfresco. "The only place where big financial brands do not use our open source technology very much is the UK - I assume that's because there's so much government money in those organisations they don't need to worry about efficiency?" Alfresco customers include Nomura, which uses it across seven countries in Asia for workflow and publishing to clients; Société Générale, where it runs a collaborative solution; and various insurance companies who use it to manage customer contract systems. It is managing dynamic web and intranet content for E*Trade and for "a large investment bank based in Canary Wharf"; and is used by asset servicing company Caecis to manage transactional orders. "That's a mission-critical application, integrated with Cofax and a mainframe legacy system, taking in faxes and assigning workflow and metadata," says Powell. "The volumes are staggering: 80 faxes per second at peak load. They tried other enterprise content management (ECM) systems and we were the one that performed."

Powell believes that being open source has been a crucial factor in Alfresco's contract wins. "These organisations have been able to discover Alfresco easily: you can study the product, look at the website and download it," he explains. "They've usually been playing with it for 12 to 18 months before they talk to us. It's quite unlike a traditional sales model where a sales guy talks you through every stage of a contract to try and control your thinking."

Gilles Ducret, J2EE architect at LloydsTSB International Private Banking, chose an open source content management solution provided by Magnolia for similar reasons. When he joined the company five years ago there was an urgent need to replace an existing web content management solution which had been unable to cope with the growth of a small informational intranet to a major communications resource. "I had almost no budget and that's why I started looking at open source," he admits. "But also I have a very strong development background and was keen to use it for the flexibility it provides."

Avoiding vendor lock-in was one key factor in its favour; another was that
it could be integrated efficiently with the company's existing J2EE-based Oracle/WebSphere environment. The bank began using Magnolia in 2005 and has not looked back. But Ducret admits that the fact both he and his webmaster have strong technical skills has been very helpful. "If you aim to promote innovation these tools are great, but you really have to have those people skills. My webmaster spends a lot of time reading the code so he can adapt it to meet our needs." He can see other barriers to more widespread adoption of other open source technologies, including the fact that - unlike Magnolia - they are not always easy to integrate with industry standard tools like WebSphere.

What, if any, barriers remain?
Another commonly cited potential objection - that the community of developers who help the various technologies to evolve are little more than an uncontrollable anarchic mob - is a misconception, insists Tony Roby, executive director, innovation and emerging technologies at Accenture. "Open source software development is far more disciplined than most commercial software development," he asserts. "Yes, everyone has access to the source code, but there are very few people who can get code into it and it is built in a transparent fashion."

Still, the final triumph of open source is some way off yet, as illustrated by Alfresco's failure to find as many clients in the UK as in Europe, Asia and the US. CEO Powell blames this on the dominance of certain vendors. "The banks still tend to be controlled by companies like Oracle," he claims. "In the UK we still come across these arguments about open source being riskier and less secure: stuff that's just nonsense - as our deployments prove. It really is just propaganda. The fact we work with all those institutions in other countries proves it; can security requirements there really be any less stringent than here?"

Accenture's Roby sympathises: "There is still some education needed within large companies and some analyst firms," he says. "I still see organisations where it's policy that there will be no open source used. Those uninformed views are based on falsehoods."

But the tide is turning as open source goes mainstream. The launch of Google's Chrome open source operating system, scheduled for late 2010, could well prove significant in the longer term because it will destroy these myths, as will more computing processes moving into the cloud. "Cloud and utility computing is very much predicated on open source, because proprietary vendors don't have their act together in terms of licensing software in that environment," adds Roby. "Mid-term, as more people wake up to the fact that consolidation in the IT industry is concentrating power in the hands of two or three vendors and the cost of software keeps rising, you're going to see more companies moving to open source. You're going to see the emergence of a true alternative open source platform over the next five years." In the shorter term, the launch of Intel's next generation chips in 2010 will provide another push for companies seeking greater efficiency from Linux in the server room.

"It's about cost, performance and transparency," says Gerald Pfeifer, director of product management, Suse Linux Enterprise at Novell. "What we don't see is customers going to open source just for the sake of it. We have to prove ourselves in terms of performance, service levels and support." Almost everywhere you look, open source is winning those arguments, growing up, with its practitioners cutting their hair, as it goes mainstream.

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