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11/13/2008
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The Open Source Enterprise: Its Time Has Come

The problems that made open source code impractical for many businesses are falling away. Add in the 'cheaper' factor, and this should get interesting.

INTEGRATION IN ITS DNA
Another way that open source code meets current needs is through lighter-weight integration than commercial vendors typically offer. By definition, open source code adheres to publicly approved standards. That means open source developers and vendors are ready to compete in a software market that's increasingly relying on Web standards.

Like Jitterbit, Talend is a piece of open source integration code. It's breaking new ground at companies like Rubbermaid's Levolor unit, where it's integrating PeopleSoft, Siebel, Oracle E-Business, and SAP applications. The idea of using Talend was met with some skepticism, says John Shafer, Levolor's senior application developer for middleware, since its IT staff only considered commercial products in the past.

What they found in Talend was 400 connectors that could handle all the connectivity Levolor needs among applications and between databases and applications. None of the alternatives stacked up, including the company's previous approach of hand-coding most connectivity. So instead of adding risk, it's come to be viewed as a way of mitigating risk, Shafer says, since the expertise behind some of the custom connectivity would periodically walk out the door to a new job.

Support continues to be one of the clouds hanging over open source, because it's far from consistent. Shafer says support has been good from Talend, but he still keeps an eye on the open source forums discussing the latest product changes. He figures if there's a problem, it'll quickly show up as an animated discussion there. Looking to open source communities and checking the mood of forum debates as part of support for business critical functions "has been something of a paradigm shift around here," he notes.

NEW MODEL, NEW RISK
Support is one of the biggest risks companies face when considering the latest model for open source, the aggregators.

As many open source projects mature, developers outside the project are taking that code and integrating it with other open source code, offering the combination as their own product. Their approaches vary widely. GroundWork's Monitor Enterprise integrates Nagios system monitoring, Cacti's tool for data capture and charting, and Ganglia's grid-monitoring tool. Bluenog is a newcomer founded by BEA Systems veterans that combines Hippo CMS content management with a portal built with open source Apache Cocoon and business intelligence built with Apache Lucene enterprise text search and indexing.

The big risk for businesses is whether aggregators can provide support for anything except their own integration. Usually, one of the upsides for sophisticated business users of open source software is that they have access to the core developers of a project if they run into difficulty. Aggregators "can't provide as good support as the core developers," contends Rod Johnson, CEO of open source supplier SpringSource, which employs the core developers of the Spring Framework for lightweight Java development. "End users know they need to go to core developers."

GroundWork maintains it can, in part by cultivating relationships with the developers of its aggregated source code. During LinuxWorld the past three years, it hosted the Cacti development teams in San Francisco as its "project in residence," bringing engineers from both groups together to troubleshoot GroundWork integration problems, along with the Switzerland-based developer of the RRDtool, on which Cacti is based. Its ties to Nagios are likewise based on relationships. But will chumminess be enough to convince companies there's enterprise-level support behind aggregated code?

GroundWork is in use at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, AOL, Genworth Financial, SAIC, and the World Bank. Oregon engineer Wood says she has needed technical support when core Nagios operations bogged down. GroundWork got a team of engineers on a WebEx session and "had the problem solved in a matter of minutes," she says.

Bluenog integrated Hippo CMS content management with a portal and BI, a mix that's solving problems for its marquee customer, Columbia University. Sri Vinay, associate director of IT, leads the technical staff that supports 15 research Web sites for the university's Center for International Earth Science Information. About 20 researchers can submit data and reports to the sites, but it used to be up to three programmers, serving part time as site-content managers, to prep the data on a staging server and post to the appropriate site.

"Five or six times a day, we get frenzied calls the data doesn't look the way it's supposed to. We need to correct it right now," says Vinay. "Then the IT people drop what they're doing and fix figures or typos." Vinay settled on Bluenog about 18 months ago because it wasn't just a portal. "Portals are great if you're one huge site," he says. The earth science portal is 15, each with a different look and feel. Bluenog separates design and content, and should let researchers post and correct much of their own data. Vinay believes that will save them up to 15% of their time by handling content directly, and it will save up to 40% of the programmers' time.

Bluenog provides support but has few direct ties to the Hippo CMS core developers. Bluenog chief operating officer Scott Barnett says his company consists of BEA veterans who understand and can meet business support expectations.

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