In-Depth

Opening the gates to a new era

Open source software is driving new IT business and development models; access to source code provides users with control of their own destiny.

The open source development model, in which applications and source code are given away for free, is revolutionizing the software industry. In some cases, companies are finding that they can grow their market faster, create applications more cost-effectively, and drive support for hardware or other licensed applications that utilize open source code.

The concept of free software has been around since the dawn of Unix. However, it was not until Netscape opened up its Mozilla source code to the general public in 1998 that the industry at large started to recognize the importance and power of open source.

"The large companies like IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun are more interested in the open source development process than they have been in the past," said Bill Claybrook, research director, Linux and Unix platforms at Boston-based analyst firm Aberdeen Group. "Smaller companies are [now] trying to figure out what this means and how to get the open source community to be interested in their products, so developers will download the code, make enhancements and fix bugs."

Today, open source software powers the majority of Web servers on the Internet. According to a recent Netcraft survey, 62.8% of all Web servers are based on the Apache open source server vs. only 19% built on top of Microsoft Windows NT, and 7.5% built on top of iPlanet. Many major commercial servers, such as BEA Software's WebLogic and IBM's WebSphere, are built on Apache.

"The interesting thing with Apache is that you have direct competition from Microsoft, the number one software maker, which is unable to touch the market share of Apache," said Bernie Mills, vice president of marketing at Collab.Net, San Francisco. Collab.Net provides tools and services that facilitate predictable, high-value open source development.

Scott Hebner, director of e-business marketing at IBM, said that by building on top of open software like Apache developers can focus on adding value, rather than on rewriting the core infrastructure. "It is about building an application, and then we can compete at the higher level of building solutions for customers," he noted.

Because open source applications do not have massive marketing war chests behind them, they must compete on merit alone. "If it is not good code, putting it in open source is not going to help," explained Collab.Net's Mills. "You have to have a sound fundamental concept behind the software and there has to be a need for it in the community."

Turning a business around with open source
Digital Creations Inc., Fredericksburg, Va., created an application server framework to support the newspaper industry. Although the open source Web development firm's framework proved very stable and powerful, Digital Creations faced an uphill battle competing against established players with much larger marketing budgets. To create its own market, the company decided to name its complete framework Zope and open source it.

Instead of losing business and revenue, Digital Creations' service and support business took off. CEO Paul Everitt said the change to an open source model enabled the firm to grow its revenue and users tenfold within the first nine months. "The best way to get a platform to a position of importance is to give it away," he noted.

Zope is an open source application server for building high-performance, dynamic Web sites. It runs on nearly all Unix platforms and Windows NT, and can be used with popular Web servers or its own built-in Web server. Some of the major users of Zope include Healtheon's WebMD, Atlanta, HireTechs.com, Los Angeles, and VistaSource, Westborough, Mass. One company, Atlanta-based ZapMedia, is building a consumer Internet appliance that uses a Zope server to access and download audio and video.

Digital Creations' Everitt said Zope is a very productive environment, in part because the same developers are both writing applications and making enhancements to Zope. Although Digital Creations has created a basic roadmap for improving Zope, Everitt said companies could pay the firm to rearrange its priorities.

George Lawton

Building a business around open source
One of the pioneers of the open source movement is Collab.Net, which has developed a business model that helps software companies use the open source process. Collab.Net has three major offerings. The first is a marketplace called SourceXchange that brings sponsors and developers together. The second is a group of services to help an established firm, such as Sun or Hewlett-Packard, launch an open source project. The third offering is a set of services aimed at supporting open source collaborative development.

"What is really compelling about Collab.Net is not open source, but the fact that they create a platform to handle a development project with a larger team than would have been possible otherwise," said Mathew Cowan, a general partner at San Mateo, Calif.-based Bowman Capital, which has funded Collab.Net. "Without Collab.Net, there is no way you could use 200 engineers worldwide to coordinate a project."

The Collab.Net approach does not have to be used for entirely open source applications. "The concept is that you have a spectrum of development, from collaboration inside the company all the way to open source," said the firm's Mills. "We are providing technology and services across that spectrum."

At one end of the spectrum is the General Public License (GPL), in which code is freely available, and anyone can make updates and share changes. San Mateo, Calif.-based OpenSales, for example, has developed an open e-commerce platform. "They make their money on service and support, and as long as you are the best and number one, you can make a go at it," said Aberdeen Group's Claybrook. "People like OpenSales are pretty safe because they are number one in the e-business open source market."

Invisible Worlds Inc. is the developer of the Blocks protocol and the Blocks eXtensible eXchange Protocol (BXXP). The Petaluma, Calif.-based company is working with Collab.Net to create encryption protocols that will enable applications to exchange meta data securely. "By releasing the software as open source we are reducing the barriers to development," noted Kris Magnusson, director of developer relations at Invisible Worlds.

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, companies might want to keep their core code proprietary while open- sourcing their supporting code. For example, Hewlett-Packard has contracted developers to port Samba, a file and print management environment, to HP-UX.

Developers have recently come out with variations of the General Public License, such as Mozilla, that place a few more restrictions on the way the software is distributed. Observers have compared these variations to gated communities.

"Everyone wants to protect their intellectual property," noted Aberdeen Group's Claybrook. "They are coming out with their own license so they can get a leg up on bringing products to market. People are beginning to worry about making money with a General Public License and they are worrying that someone else will be able to provide better service than [they can]."

A sampling of open source software
Software Type Web Address
Apache Web server www.apache.org
Enhydra Application server platform www.enhydra.org
Gnome Windowing environment for Linux www.gnome.org
Linux Operating system www.linux.org
Mozilla Web browser www.mozilla.org
NetBeans Java development environment www.netbeans.com
StarOffice Office productivity suite www.openoffice.org
Zope Application server platform www.zope.org
Source: George Lawton    

A few of the more well-known and used open source products on the market.

Hewlett-Packard has been working with Collab.Net and an open source model to help drive the deployment of its E-speak application integration technology. According to Mike Balma, director of marketing for Hewlett-Packard's Open Source and Linux Operation, "The reason we open sourced E-speak was that we wanted to make it pervasive."

E-speak will allow developers to dynamically link the service offered by different Web servers into new applications on the fly. "That means the technology needs to be pervasive like TCP. By releasing it in an open source manner, anyone can copy it and you don't need to pay any royalties," Balma said. "The reason we did this was that the value to the end user increases significantly the more pervasive it is. Anyone can build services around it, just like they can build services around Linux."

Balma also expects a developer community to build around this so enhancements can be added. "You put some good stuff out there and you cannot predict where it will go," he said. "By allowing it to evolve, it will develop more quickly than in a controlled fashion."

But for an open source program to succeed, you need to promote it to catch the attention of key developers. Said Balma, "One of the [misconceptions] is that you can do open source if you just put it on your Web site and say, 'Come and get it.' But you need to create a community. To actually build a community and make people feel like they have a stake in it is a lot more [work] than just putting the code out there."

Opening the development environment
Sun is creating an entire Java development tool strategy around open source called NetBeans. More than 300,000 people have downloaded the tool online and Sun has published one million CDs with the tool.

Dave Taber, senior vice president, business development for the Forté tools group at Sun said, "The reason we did open source was to be sure ISVs would have the ultimate insurance policy that they would have control over their own destiny. If Sun had kept proprietary control over the source, even if it had given away the software, at the end of the day developers could worry that someday Sun might charge them. Because open source is community property, ISVs can do whatever they want and never have to worry about a change in direction from Sun or any other company."

Added Taber, "There is a symbiosis between open source baseline and the commercial value-added product." For example, Rational Software and Informix have rapidly come to market with enhancements to Forté. "This means that they only have to deliver 20,000 lines of code into a binary product, not 200,000, and it is on top of a baseline that is popular, stable and well-known," explained Taber.

There are more than 25 partners working with Sun to develop enhanced products on top of Forté, and Sun expects more of those partners to deliver products by the end of the year. "We expect to have more than 30 products on top of this code base soon," Taber said. "Considering we started from a standing start in February, that is a very fast level of achievement."

One of the reasons that Sun is giving away NetBeans is to enable developers to create Java applications from a variety of platforms. Before NetBeans, all of the compilers and development tools had been built on top of C++ and compiled for a particular platform. NetBeans enables the same Java development environment to run on Windows, Macintosh, Solaris, Linux and any other platform that supports Java.

Another main benefit of open source development is that it can reduce development costs dramatically by taking advantage of existing code. For example, Galactic Marketing, Arlington, Texas, was able to reduce the development cost for a Web-based workflow application from $80,000 to $20,000 using open source and the Collab.Net methodology.

The open source project was a first for Galactic. Anthony O'Krongly, vice president of IT at Galactic, said he was a bit leery about open-sourcing any project because of concerns about time delays and quality. However, he was willing to take a gamble with this project because it was not something that a particular department was dependent on. "Since it was completely under IT's control and direction, we decided to go with open source so we could test that format without some of the deadlines and demands associated with someone else being a sponsor," he said.

One particularly attractive aspect of the Collab.Net methodology is that it enables independent programmers dispersed around the planet to coordinate their efforts in a meaningful way. This enables companies to work with free agents in places like Czechoslovakia and India where costs are lower.

"There is a lot less cost associated with an individual trying to make a few tens of thousands of dollars vs. a company with overhead and advertising and all of the things that come with keeping a company running," said O'Krongly. He has been happy with the progress and results he has seen so far.

When it launched the project, Galactic put the RFP that specified the overall concept of what it wanted to create online. Programmers came back with various proposals describing the approach they would use and the open source code that would be incorporated into the final application. Galactic offered $15,000 for the developer, and paid an additional $5,000 each to Collab.Net and the peer reviewer.

One of the concerns about open source is that anyone, including competitors, can take your work and apply it to their own operations. O'Krongly said his firm chose to open source this application because it is not directly related to their core business. He noted, "If this was to give us a fundamental advantage in the way we did marketing incentive programs, we would not have done it through open source."

Building a future around open source
The incredible success of Apache serves to illustrate that the future of software development could be based on open source. Properly harnessed, the millions of programmers interested in furthering a technology will tend to have an advantage over even the largest development teams run by a single organization. As open source platforms move into other areas, they will begin to push the real battles between vendors from core infrastructure to other ways of adding value.

IBM's Hebner argues that open technology is what has allowed the Internet to grow so quickly. "The Internet is not about jazzy technology, it is about defining a collection of open standards. The 1960s and 1970s were about exposing hardware platforms. Then you had client/server, and the developers moved from developing on the hardware to developing on operating systems," he said. "We are now on the inflection point where developers are increasingly developing applications to expose the value of open standards."

The open software movement is not just about giving away code. It is about a new process of developing and creating widespread support.

"There is a sort of misconception that open source means free software," said Hebner. "What it represents is freely accessible non-profit and freely implementable reference implementations of technology that a company can access and feel comfortable that it will not be locked in. Then you can create products, add value and compete on the implementations."

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