Has open source come of age?

By Nicola Brittain
05 Oct 2010 View Comments
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With the ongoing public sector push for increased use of open source and the unexpected (in some quarters) detailed roadmap for open source mobile platform Java ME by proprietor Oracle recently, it could be argued that open source software has finally come of age.

And as Matt Aslett of open source analyst firm The 451 Group said: “It looks as though scepticism about open source, at government level in particular, has finally been overcome. This is because people are starting to get their head around the licensing models.”

Further reading

The open source license models differ from tradition paid for proprietary licenses in that although they are free they may contain general restrictions of use. There are around 70 different types of license in total. Approved open source licenses are those approved by the Open Source Initiative (OSI). Most open source vendors or foundations will provide guidance on licenses where it is required.

There have been other drivers for the increased uptake of open source too; the most obvious of these being the economic downturn and limited budgets. The desire for increased flexibility, particularly in the public sector that has tended to lag other sectors as a result of clunky procurement practices, is also important.

“An organisation can move from a test environment straight into production with open source, while procurement of proprietary software would require a user to set up a paid for license at this stage,” said Karson Gerloff, president of the Free Software Foundation, when speaking at the eForum.

In addition, Aslett argues that there are correlations between open source and agile development methodology, a type of software development practice that is increasingly gaining traction.

Some shared ideas include the development of software for a particular class of user, interaction with those users during the design and implementation phases, as well as blending design and implementation, working in groups and engaging in continuous redesign.

Efficient fixing of bugs as a result of access to the original source code is another advantage that open source has over proprietary software.

Open source originated as a enthusiast’s tool and there are some types of software that continue to be maintained by a community, the best known are perhaps Apache – a widely deployed web server, and Eclipse, both of which are maintained by software foundations.

However, there are increasing numbers of commercially targeted open source applications that are driven by commercial outfits, these include MySQL and WS02.

Many software outfits utilise the open core model. In the case of commercial open source vendor Talend, this comprises a free central open source offering with service level agreements and a legal warranty, but it also offers value added features that include a multi-user developer repository and advanced deployment with load balancing.

The company provides software to the Bank of America, the Financial Times the BBC and France Telecom among others and says that of its 500,000 users 1,500 are enterprise users that have taken up the company’s value added services.

WS02 is another open source enterprise software company that recently delivered what it claims is the first open source cloud platform-as-a-service.

WSO2’s work with IBM to develop the latter's WebSphere web services gateway is indicative of another significant trend within the development of open source and that is one that sees traditional proprietary vendors using elements of open source within their own offering.

SAP now incorporates Apache into its software and Oracle is developing MySQL and Java for ME. Benefits to these organisations come from lower development costs and collaboration with the development and open source community. They can also create products around open source that complement their traditional products.

Whether this adoption benefits the open source community or not is another matter, because the open source story is still being played out.

“If people were waiting for open source to overthrow the establishment they will inevitably be disappointed. This simply is not going to happen, but the move by proprietary software companies will benefit customers in many tangible ways,” said Aslett from 451 Group.

There are still problems with widespread deployment of open source, however. These include the cost of retraining developers and the lack of senior management support as a result of long-standing relationships with Microsoft or SAP or another proprietary vendor again.

Another problem that relates specifically to the community developed products, according to Richard Chapman, a partner at law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner, is that no one knows how long these software projects will last.

“Will software that is not being commercially driven become moribund? And how long is it likely to take to become that way?” he said.

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