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Software // Enterprise Applications

UPS Unsure Open Source Can Deliver

While the package-delivery company uses Linux and Apache, it's careful about the software it allows its employees to use.

Despite the growing acceptance of open-source software, not all companies are willing to entrust their operations to a community of strangers.

Open-source software's collaborative model resonates with United Parcel Service Inc. as the company looks to build a services-oriented architecture where applications can be developed in one part of the company and deployed in multiple locations. But Nick Gray, UPS's applications manager for architectural services, sees the open-source developer community as a less-stable incarnation of the collaborative programming that IT departments have been doing for years.

The strictly regimented package-delivery company does use open-source software, such as the Linux operating system and Apache Web server, but these were fully scrutinized by the company's legal department before they were deployed. UPS's legal department had to look at the licensing requirements from the different foundations that back these open-source applications, Gray says.

UPS has for the past two years also used the Apache Foundation's Struts and Ant open-source frameworks for building Java Web applications as part of the company's J2EE environment for Web development, but this is more a matter of finding the right tool for the job than of looking specifically for open-source tools. Struts is an industry-accepted framework for developing Web applications, Gray says. Ant is a build tool that can be used to manage nightly or event-driven builds. The expertise to use these tools came from within UPS's staff.

Inside UPS, developers post code that can be reused by others within the company, but this code is not available to the general public. UPS employees aren't permitted to download open-source code or free applications from the Internet without first submitting a request to Gray, who checks the requested software against a list of approved applications. If the requested software hasn't made the list, it can't be used unless UPS makes the decision to add it or Gray grants special permission to use it. "Intellectual-property issues are something we need to keep an eye on," he says.

UPS doesn't dwell on whether or not an application or tool is open source but rather if it can help the business better meet its objectives. "We're not here to figure out the next gee-whiz technology we can use but rather how it can help me deliver business value faster," Gray says. In fact, rather than hire open-source specialists or retrain IT workers, UPS is using the same staff it uses to support Sun Solaris and HP-UX to support Linux. Any additional support the company needs comes through HP Services.

Gray appreciates the impact that open-source software has had on the software market. In fact, he uses OpenOffice productivity software and the Mozilla Web browser outside of work. Still, business is business. "We absolutely don't equate open source with being free," he says.

The company is evaluating JBoss open-source Java application server software as the result of a recent acquisition. "We bought a company that was making a freight-movement application that used JBoss, so for now it's an approved exception" to the approved-software list, Gray says. UPS hasn't yet decided whether JBoss will make the mainstream list, but Gray says the company hopes to make a decision by January.

For more about how companies are building Linux expertise, see our upcoming story in the Nov. 8 issue of InformationWeek.

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