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Does Open Source Matter? To IT, It Does, Says Nicholas Carr

"Does IT Matter?" author predicts that open-source operating systems and middleware will predominate in IT shops of the future.

Nicholas Carr, the Harvard Business Review editor-at-large who in 2004 authored the book "Does IT Matter?" said Tuesday that open source code is much more than a passing phenomenon and will form the base of future IT departments.

"We're in the early stages of a revolution in IT. We're entering a true utility era for IT" in which open source code, from the Apache Web Server, Linux operating system and other pieces of open source code working with them will form a commoditized base for most enterprise computing, he said in a keynote speech Tuesday at the Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco. Open source code "will fundamentally change the way software is bought and used in the IT world," he said.

The exact shape of things to come is still hard to discern, but he predicted a commodity base of open-source software was likely to become available through large centralized suppliers. Google is a forerunner of computing services supplied from a large, centralized grid, he said. Instead of stacks of software contracts and documentation, the software infrastructure will more closely resemble a socket in the wall, he said.

Carr said the enterprise software stack of the future would have a mix of open source and commercial code, with the more specialized layers, such as industry-specific applications, remaining the province of private suppliers. But the operating system and middleware layers will move toward open source code because of its low cost and the inability of commercial suppliers to strongly differentiate themselves and add value at that level.

Carr made an analogy to the electric utility industry where there was resistance to electricity grids because manufacturers had invested in their own in-house suppliers. But generators for the grid could produce electricity more cheaply than the manufacturer could. Manufacturers that continued to produce their own electricity gained no competitive advantage from doing so, since it was more expensive than utility power. Within 20 years, most manufacturing had shifted from homegrown electricity to grid-based suppliers.

In a similar vein, open-source developers are producing software without the expense of branding and marketing. As long as the code is of good quality, it will have an inherent cost advantage over code produced and marketed by a commercial company, he said. Enterprises "will move from piecemeal open source code to integrated utility services... The transition happens fast," once it gets underway, he predicted. "Are you socket ready?" he asked.

But not every listener at the Open Source Business Conference came away believing the transition was underway. "I think it will be a long time before medical or financial services are willing to trust their data to someone else outside their walls," said Peter Hartzman, director of IS for Fresenius Medical Care, a Lexington, Mass., supplier of dialysis systems.

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