April 10, 2000
Open Source Moves To The Mainstream
Reliability, performance, and availability draw developers away from commercial products
By Aaron Weiss
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Development tools born out of the open-source philosophy typically differ from commercially produced tools in three ways. First, the source code is freely available and modifiable. A skilled developer may then have the opportunity to alter the tool to meet a specific need. Commercial software can at best offer whatever degree of customization its developers choose to allow, which may range from none to significant.
Second, open-source software is often free to use, and similar commercial tools may cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. The Apache Web server, the Perl and PHP scripting languages, and the Linux operating system are robust examples. But the term "open source" is an umbrella category, and there are sometimes exceptions, such as the MySQL database, which is an open-source tool but carries licensing terms that in certain cases require payment.
The third and most significant difference is in how tools evolve, whether from a coordinated effort of self-motivated participants, as with open source, or a top-down, centralized management path. Many IT managers are suspicious of open-source software because it often comes from an environment that may be hostile to traditional business processes. Politics aside, the decisions on whether to adopt open-source software should be based on reliability, performance, shelf life, and technical support and accountability.
One of the leading open-source success stories is the Apache Web server, which for many sites is the backbone of Web applications. Apache is a flagship open-source project, continually developed by a self-selected group of coordinated volunteer programmers. It costs nothing to use. As of March, Apache is deployed on more than 7.8 million domains, or some 60% of Internet Web sites.
The closest commercial competitor to Apache is Microsoft's Internet Information Server, which in March accounted for 2.7 million Web sites, or nearly 21%, followed by Netscape's commercial servers at about 7% of the market. The skeptic will argue that Apache is popular because it's free, which says nothing about its reliability.
While Microsoft doesn't provide specific numbers, its Hotmail service is proclaimed to be the "world's largest provider of free Web-based E-mail." It's interesting, then, that despite its own commercial offerings, Hotmail juggles its millions of visitors from an Apache Web server-running atop the FreeBSD open-source operating system, no less. And although KarasXX may not have Hotmail's name recognition, it's one of the top-five subscription adult entertainment sites on the Web, where traffic is typically enormous. Its server of choice? Apache.
These numbers don't prove that Apache is uniquely capable of of serving high-traffic Web sites. But for the types of traffic typical for many sites, Apache is a worthy choice.
The battle over E-commerce territory has been a little more difficult for open source, perhaps an indication that security-minded companies prefer to use commercial products. In August, Microsoft held 36% of the market share for Secure Sockets Layer servers, leading over Apache's 25%. By February, Apache grew to 33% of the secure server market while Microsoft had sunk to 21%. However, another 33% of the secure server market is controlled by C2Net Software Inc.'s Stronghold server -which is a commercial product, though it's based on Apache-in total giving commercial servers more than 50% of the secure market.
The performance and reliability of successful, major open-source projects such as Apache, Linux, and Perl is field-proven. Web application developers will be hard-pressed, for instance, to find an open-source back-end database with the enterprise-level robustness of Oracle's offerings. Open-source database-management systems such as MySQL and PostgreSQL can be excellent choices for the right Web application, but they don't compete at the best-in-class level with commercial counterparts in nearly the way that Linux and Apache do in their respective classes.
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