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3/15/2005
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Serial Entrepreneur Strikes Again With Open Source

"Is there a place for open-source software at my company?" It's one of the most important questions that IT executives have been asking themselves over the past few years. The answer depends, among other things, on your company's level of comfort with open source and your ability to integrate open-source applications with existing proprietary apps. The above question has also helped open source drift into the crosshairs of the IT consulting market. But unlike the technologies that created the l

"Is there a place for open-source software at my company?" It's one of the most important questions that IT executives have been asking themselves over the past few years. The answer depends, among other things, on your company's level of comfort with open source and your ability to integrate open-source applications with existing proprietary apps.

The above question has also helped open source drift into the crosshairs of the IT consulting market. But unlike the technologies that created the last consulting boom, fed by the late-1990s frenzy over the Internet and E-business, open source is likely to keep overzealous speculators at bay and give the advantage to the user.Serial entrepreneur Bob Gett has identified the open-source software market as ripe for the picking and recently launched a new company called Optaros Inc. to fill the need he sees for consulting and systems -integration services that help large enterprises make the most of open source. Gett knows how to pick his markets. During the emergence of client-server technology, he served as president of Cambridge Technology Partners North America. Gett struck again in the late 1990s with Viant Corp., a well-recognized player in the short-lived E-services market.

Although open-source software has caught on in a big way with both small and large companies, Gett's premise is there are still a lot of businesses out there that haven't taken a close look at the benefits of applying open-source to create the software needed to solve business problems. This premise has resonated to the tune of $7 million so far. That's the amount of Series A venture capital funding that Optaros has received from the likes of Charles River Ventures and General Catalyst Partners.

Fellow Viant alum Dave Gynn says the seeds for Optaros were planted when he and the company's other executives began seeing ways to deliver software using open-source modules rather than proprietary packages. "About two years ago, I began to question why I would need IBM WebSphere when I could use JBoss," he says. "Open source was maturing to the point where it became a contender against larger proprietary technologies that were eating up our budgets. For the past two years, open-source software has been a part of every major decision."

Optaros' goal will be to view problem solving through the lens of open source. The company doesn't claim to have an all-star team of open-source luminaries, such as you would find at the Open Source Development Labs, where Linux creator Linus Torvalds and kernel maintainer Andrew Morton reside, or even Novell, whose acquisition of Ximian Inc. in 2003 delivered to them Miguel de Icaza, founder and project leader of Mono, an open-source effort to build a Linux version of the Microsoft .Net development environment.

Optaros' management team nonetheless does have an intriguing lineup. The firm last week added Robert M. "r0ml" Lefkowitz as its VP of research and executive education. Lefkowitz's job will be helping to educate enterprise customers about the benefits of open source and how they can successfully adopt open-source software. His qualifications for this stem from his role as chief technical architect and VP of data services for IT at AT&T Wireless.

Another interesting addition to Optaros' lineup is Stephen Walli, the firm's VP of open-source development strategy. Walli may not have a cool nickname, but that's probably because his last gig was as an advocate for open source at Microsoft, where he was focused on the company's Shared Source business strategies and was responsible for technical implementation of open-source-related community projects (basically, creating a strategy through which Microsoft could engage the open-source community).

Optaros acknowledges that companies don't necessarily need a consulting firm to tell them what open source is. Rather, companies will ostensibly benefit by hiring Optaros to create a formal evaluation process for applying open-source software to different business needs. "We can help them make the use of open source a more legitimate, normal process, and help CIOs see where it fits," Gett says.

At first blush, it would seem that the very nature of open source would discourage companies from hiring consulting firms. If the major benefits of open source are (A) the creativity it allows corporate developers when assembling applications and (B) the cost savings of not having to pay licensing fees, why do you need consultants?

Gett and Gynn dispute the notion that open-source implementations are primarily about saving money. Sure, they say, you'll save money on software licensing fees, but beyond that, companies still have to develop a strategy around open source use and look to mitigate risks wherever possible. That doesn't change whether you're deploying on Microsoft or Red Hat. "This is not about cheap, unsupported software," Gett says. "Open source is a catalyst that will create a lot more choices for enterprises."

Another benefit to using consultants in an open-source environment, Gynn acknowledges, is that customers can chose at any time to take over the work themselves. "We're not bringing in a proprietary framework, which is how consulting companies traditionally lock you in," he says. Adds Gett, "The value is not the intellectual property anymore; it's how you use it. That's the open-source play."

Refreshingly, Gett doesn't claim to have it all figured out, an attitude which was prevalent among E-services providers. His last two companies did well for a while, before their markets dried up, and they were consumed by larger businesses. Novell in 2001 bought Cambridge for $266 million in stock. In 2002, Viant was swallowed by Divine Inc., which went bankrupt the following year.

What's been your experience with consulting firms? To what extent will companies benefit from these types of services, beyond what's offered by IBM, Novell, Red Hat, and others?

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