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?


Craig Murphy -- Photo by Nancy Newberry

Sabre Holdings anticipates a 40% cost reduction going from load-balanced servers to Linux and MySQL on clustered servers, CTO Murphy says.

Photo of Craig Murphy by Nancy Newberry
At Sabre Holdings Corp., developer of the Sabre reservation system and the Travelocity Web site, the travel-shopping system is moving off fault-tolerant Compaq Himalaya servers onto a combination of Linux and the MySQL database running on clustered Intel servers. The main reason: Total cost of ownership will be at least 40% cheaper, with anticipated savings of "tens of millions of dollars," chief technology officer Craig Murphy says. But Sabre doesn't trust open source 100% yet--the shopping system's financial transactions will run on commercial software using Hewlett-Packard NonStop systems.

The vendors behind the new open-source products have figured out that service and support are what sells. MySQL is available free under a General Public License or as a commercially licensed system starting at $495 per server; companies buy commercial licenses so they aren't obligated to donate changes back to MySQL development, as required by the GPL. MySQL technical support ranges from $2,500 per year per server for E-mail help to $48,000 per year per server for full-blown, 24-hour emergency service. JBoss is free under what's known as the Lesser General Public License. That lets a company modify it without donating the changes back to the JBoss community. Technical support starts at $10,000 per application per year.

Sabre Holdings called on MySQL AB in January when its 64-bit MySQL database ground to a halt. Sabre's IT staff sent a snapshot of the problematic code to MySQL late on a Thursday afternoon, and the problem was resolved by the end of Friday. "I can't tell you how encouraged I was by that quick resolution," Murphy says.

National Leisure's Cash encountered "an appropriate amount of skepticism and professional concern" about tying such a key system to the latest open-source phenomenon. So he talked to JBoss users, did extensive testing, then signed up for support from the company that employs the key developers behind the application server of the same name. "We've been able to have very high-level contact with JBoss developers on how to increase performance," Cash says.

JBoss and MySQL are alike in employing the core developers behind the open-source products that begot the companies. "We tightly control our code base, unlike Linux," says Fleury, who's both CEO of JBoss and lead developer of the JBoss project. "It's open-source code with accountability, almost like a commercial company."

That accountability has its upside. "We know we wrote it all," says Zach Urlocker, MySQL's VP of marketing. As a result, MySQL for a fee will indemnify its customers from any claims of intellectual-property infringement that might arise. It's a top-of-mind issue for business-technology managers contemplating open source in light of SCO Group's widening legal assault on Linux developers and users.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer contends that Microsoft offers better manageability and lower total costs, while standing behind its products better than a company that doesn't own the intellectual property. But he doesn't expect the challenge to go away. "These companies may all go away," he says. "Five years from now, it may not be JBoss and MySQL that we're talking about. It will be someone else. But Microsoft will still be competing effectively with them."

This model--companies that spearhead open-source projects while simultaneously building profit-driven enterprises around the efforts--is unproven and certainly open to doubts. Independent open-source developers, for example, have less influence in projects managed by these companies, so there isn't the wide-open potential for innovation that Linux fans tout. At MySQL, "99% of the key contributors are on the payroll and have equity in the company," Urlocker says. Code contributors must sign over rights to MySQL AB.

"I have to admit that that is one particular set of problems I personally have always tried very hard to avoid," says Torvalds, who's working on the Linux kernel for the Open Source Development Lab, a nonprofit consortium of technology companies that includes Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Intel. "On the other hand, I also suspect that, especially in markets that are pretty focused on commercial needs anyway, and things like databases certainly would fit that, it may just be inevitable and possibly the best model to keep in touch with the needs of your customers."

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