Open Source, Part 2 - InformationWeek

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3/26/2004
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Open Source, Part 2

A second generation of open-source tools such as databases and app servers is winning business converts. But do they have the innovation and influence to prosper?

La Quinta Inns, the national hotel chain, has just shifted its fast-growing online reservation system from BEA Systems Inc.'s WebLogic application server to a lesser-known open-source product called JBoss. The reasons for the switch from commercial software to an open-source alternative sound familiar: good performance, increased flexibility, and lower costs. They're the same benefits that have driven many companies to try the open-source operating system Linux and the Apache Web server in the past few years.

What's different this time are the names of the open-source products being deployed by La Quinta Corp. and a growing number of companies. In addition to JBoss, they include the Tomcat Java Servlet engine and MySQL, PostgreSQL, and Berkeley DB databases.


Linus Torvalds -- Photo by Timothy Archibold

Open-source projects are building on existing systems, Torvalds says.

Photo of Linus Torvalds by Timothy Archibold
"It's pretty clear that the open-source projects are building out on top of existing infrastructure," writes Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux kernel, in an E-mail interview. "Right now, the databases are obviously starting to come of age, and much of the usage there builds on top of successes of open source in the kernel and Web space."

This second generation of open-source products is different in many ways from its predecessors--including lacking a rich uncle to help the products get ahead. They can't count on endorsements from influential technology companies such as IBM that helped propel Linux and Apache. That's because some of the newer open-source offerings threaten the market share of commercial products. JBoss performs functions similar to IBM's WebSphere, while MySQL, PostgreSQL, and Berkeley DB are relational databases of the same general type as IBM's DB2 and Oracle's flagship system.

Still, they're slowly winning converts. "If somebody asked me a year and a half ago if I would use an open-source database, I would have laughed," says Jamie Cash, director of technology architecture at the National Leisure Group Inc., a travel-packaging company with annual revenue of about $1 billion. Cash, an Oracle customer, isn't laughing now as he eyes MySQL for potential use at National Leisure. The company already runs JBoss in a system that pulls together information from airlines, hotels, car-rental agencies, and destination-activity vendors.

Technology investors are taking notice, too. MySQL AB, which was organized from the beginning as both a community-software project and a technology company, last year attracted $19 million in venture-capital financing. It's up to 130 employees and growing. JBoss Inc., a 30-employee company, attracted $10 million in venture funding last month, which it plans to use to hire more developers and support specialists and to increase marketing, CEO Marc Fleury says.

Raven Zachary -- Photo by Nancy Newberry

Bookings on La Quinta's Web site, run by JBoss' application server, rose 83% in 2003, says Zachary, director of Internet technologies.

Photo of Raven Zachary by Nancy Newberry
Following in the footsteps of Linux and Apache, second-generation open-source products have momentum in their favor and aren't relegated to just backroom development projects. The Java-based JBoss application server handles 10,000 messages a day on La Quinta's Web site, where customer bookings increased 83% last year compared with 2002. "There's tremendous excitement and support for our online initiative," says Raven Zachary, director of Internet technologies.

In the middle of last year, La Quinta took the operation of its Web site back from an outside service and revamped it to better serve online travel shopping. The company was using JBoss for software development and some lesser Web-site applications and determined JBoss version 3, released in June, was ready for its workloads. JBoss also had been certified as Java 2 Enterprise Edition-compatible by Sun Microsystems, a high hurdle with thousands of tests. La Quinta wanted to cluster its reservation servers to allow failover, which would have meant buying four BEA licenses, compared with one for JBoss. "We had no problems with BEA's WebLogic," Zachary says. "This isn't about reliability."

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