Software vendors hand aging products to open-source community, giving customers more control

Larry Greenemeier, Contributor

July 23, 2004

6 Min Read

Students, faculty, and staff returning to Golden Gate University this fall will have remote access to database, printing, and E-mail functions from any Web browser, no longer having to connect through the school's network. The reason for this newfound freedom: open-source software.

The implication of the San Francisco institution using open source goes deeper than simply trying an alternative to proprietary products. It shows how the popularity of open source is influencing the strategy of proprietary software vendors, especially how they deal with older products.

Golden Gate this summer is testing iFolder, iPrint, and NetMail software, products that Novell turned over to the open-source community. Novell, which has a long-standing reputation for providing a solid network operating system, two years ago contributed once-proprietary code to the open-source community. Last year, it went a step further into open source, acquiring operating-system vendor SuSE Linux and Ximian Inc., a maker of Linux desktop software.

Golden Gate had considered using Microsoft or generic open-source software to provide its 6,000 students and 2,000 faculty and staff with access to computing services. But Novell's reputation and commitment to Linux, on which the school already was standardizing, inspired confidence in chief technology officer Anthony Hill.

More companies are trying Novell's approach, using an open-source strategy to compete for market share and enjoy newfound relevance, even with aging products. It's also a way for users to influence the direction of software development and be able to act quickly to make changes.

When vendors give code to the open-source community, they're really letting the market influence the technology's direction, Hill says. Users are less dependent on vendors for these products, and vendors can focus on developing more-sophisticated products.

"We're still depending on Novell for Zenworks, GroupWise, and core network-management technology," Hill says. One or more vendors back most significant open-source products, including the Linux operating system and the MySQL database project, to the same extent as proprietary products, he says. "We'll still look to Novell as the distributor and support entity."

For most companies, this migration to open source provides investment protection. Access to source code isn't new, it's just done differently now, says Michael Prince, VP and CIO of Burlington Coat Factory. "Years ago, we used to negotiate source agreements for everything we bought," he says. "Companies and their support of their products is a transient thing."

But large investments in software and the hardware it runs on aren't transient. When Burlington installs thousands of check readers and point-of-sale devices in its 350 North American stores, it doesn't want to be left behind if the vendor moves on to a new technology. "When the planned life cycle is 15 years, having access to the source code is a great insurance policy," Prince says.

Burlington Coat Factory has used Linux and the Apache server for five years and, in 2002, rolled out point-of-sale systems running Red Hat Linux and back-end data-center equipment running SuSE Linux. When vendors give source code to the open-source community or customers, they're slowing the obsolescence of their products and improving the quality of service Burlington's IT department can deliver, Prince says. "This is like oil to the gears of the enterprise right in its nerve center. We can go about building systems that are more reliable for the company, without worrying about finding Band-Aids to improve performance."

Novell has contributed several pieces of software to the open-source community, including the iFolder file-management app, UDDI Web-services server, Evolution Connector for Microsoft Exchange, and Mono, which makes technology standards that Microsoft publishes with Ecma International available to open-source programmers. "Open source says that I'm no longer under the thumb of a vendor who's making my technology decisions for me," Novell CTO Alan Nugent says. The days of "hoarding technology and making decisions on behalf of the customer" are over, he says.

Rick Berk CIO of financial-services firm Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. -- Photo by Sacha Lecca

When Niku made Workbench open source, Brown Brothers gained flexibility, Rick Berk CIO of financial-services firm Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., says.

Photo by Sacha Lecca

Good riddance, says Rick Berk, CIO of financial-services firm Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., which for the past decade has been using Niku Corp.'s Workbench project-scheduling software. With Niku's decision earlier this month to make most of the code for the 10-year-old product open source, Brown Brothers got more flexibility in using the product. "We may do nothing with the source code," Berk says. "Or, if there's a particular feature of Workbench that doesn't quite interface properly, we might look to tweak it."

Niku joins Computer Associates and BEA Systems in recently making once-proprietary code open source. CA in May said it would release its Ingres relational database and related tools to the open-source community to foster innovation and encourage developers and application vendors to utilize the database. Also in May, BEA said it would contribute the framework for WebLogic Workshop, its rapid-application-development tools that are meant to appeal to developers less skilled in building Java-based software.

Savings Niku reaps from not having to develop and support Workbench can be invested in its Clarity suite of project-, program-, financial-, and process-management software, Berk says. "It makes sense when a software vendor has a product that it cannot justify a continued investment in," he says.

Still, open source isn't for everyone, particularly IT departments whose hands are full providing user support. Fulton County, Ga.'s IT group has stayed away from extensive use of open-source software to support the county's 7,000 users. Fulton runs Linux on a portion of its mainframe, but CIO Robert Taylor likes to keep his apps as vanilla as possible. "I don't have the resources to be able to utilize open source," he says. "We purchase turnkey applications, and the vendor is responsible for putting those systems in place."

Back in San Francisco, Golden Gate's Hill can't help but see open source's impact on the software market through rose-colored glasses. It gives products a new life even after their creators have little incentive for continuing to invest in them.

But that doesn't mean users will accept any software that's repackaged as open source. The greatest challenge for proprietary software vendors considering an open-source approach is finding a viable business model. "The open-source community could run out of steam if there's not a clear channel for support and development," Hill says. "IT managers will draw the line at using software that's just out there on the Web, especially in more mission-critical areas of their business."

So far, users are focusing on the benefits of proprietary software making the open-source move, lauding the new-found flexibility it's giving them with older products that vendors previously might have abandoned.

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