No Time for Open Source in the Service-Enabled Enterprise

The Big Idea


  • Open-source apps are attractive for SOA for many of the same reasons they are popular for other development projects.
  • Although open-source apps may be taking areas such as Web server development by storm, they aren’t always a choice for more leading-edge projects, such as SOA.
  • Developers are less likely to use open source to push the envelope because they are concerned about support and the long-term roadmap for many open-source projects.

Mike Myer affectionately calls RightNow Technologies a “schizophrenic” company. The mind-numbing part isn’t the CRM software and hosting services that customers purchase from the company, says Myer, VP of development and CTO. Rather, it’s RightNow’s mix of open-source technologies in its back-end servers and clientside Microsoft .NET and C# programs that create a split personality. Myer binds the two worlds together using a service-oriented architecture. “The Web browser client—the thick browser application we’ve built—essentially makes remote procedure calls with Web service requests to the server,” he explains.

Besides straddling two diverse technical worlds, RightNow is trying to marry a significant open-source component to a Web services environment. Despite a flurry of high-profile announcements late last year for open-source projects addressing key foundational elements of SOAimplementations, usable technologies are rare today, and companies combining open-source and SOAare even rarer, analysts report.

However, open-source and industry observers say that might all change over the next year as companies such as RightNow combine the business flexibility of SOAwith their open-source passions. “We are very happy with open source in our back-end architecture,” Myer says. “With a service-oriented architecture, you should be able to combine disparate technologies and never know what the technology is on the other side of the connection.”

A pair to open
Open source and SOA are a natural pair, if for no other reason than they’re among the hottest technology movements hitting today’s IT departments. Arecent survey by Forrester Research found that about 60 percent of enterprises with 5,000 or more employees are adopting SOA. In addition, a quarter of Global 2000-class companies reported an enterprise-level commitment to SOA.

Out-of-the-box and Web services standards still make sense

Open source may be hot in some circles, but for SOA user Furrukh Khan, the convenience of a commercial platform just makes sense. The director of the technology at the Collaborative for Applied Software Technology chose Microsoft .NET to create and launch OR-Eye, which is now rolling out to 5 hospitals at the Ohio State University Medical Center.

The SOA application, and its follow-on version, known as OR-Eye 2, helps automate data-collection processes in operating rooms and intensive care units and develop correlations between drug treatments and patient outcomes. “OR-Eye makes an electronic anesthesia medical record,” Khan says.

Before OR-Eye, vital-sign monitors communicated in a proprietary network that created islands of information that couldn’t easily share information with other hospital areas. Now, Web services run in an SOA environment to extract data from the operating rooms, where it’s recorded in patient records or made available to clinicians through secure Web applications that physicians can call up anywhere they find a wired or wireless Internet connection.“This means a [consulting] surgeon or anesthesiologist now has the capability to look at a whole procedure going on in an operating room even if they’re sitting in a cafeteria or at home,” Khan says.

The medical center created the necessary Web services integration and secure messaging capabilities using first .NET’s Web Services Enhancement (WSE 2.0) and later Windows Communication Foundation services, which provides a unified programming model for implementing Web services standards. “We can create our service-oriented architecture so that secure conversations are handled in a standard way at the infrastructure level,” Khan says. “Even though we used Microsoft technologies, on the wire, whatever we send is based on standards, so the system is interoperable with any other system based on standards.” Key standards for OR-Eye include WS-Security, WS-SecureConversations, WS-Policy and WS-Trust.

The out-of-the-box SOA components and Web services standards OSU gets from a commercial product keep Khan from moving to open source. “For us, [the commercial alternative] is an inexpensive solution because OSU has site licenses,” he explains. “With Windows Server 2003, we don’t have to buy anything on top of what comes out of the box. Basically we are spending no money on software except for just buying the standard operating system. You can also get security, reliable messaging, transactions and everything else based on open standards. It’s the same thing if we were to buy IBM WebSphere. That would come with IBM’s implementation of these protocols.”

An integrated package also cuts down on training costs, he believes. “I think as far as training curve is concerned, [commercial software] is certainly the least steep way to get into SOA,” Khan says.

Alan Joch

Also significant were future plans. Only 1 percent of the total respondents say they plan to cut back on SOAprojects in the coming year. “So somebody got burned or an unrelated company change meant they would be doing less with SOA, but that number says there certainly isn’t much disillusionment,” notes Randy Heffner, a Forrester analyst. About 70 percent of the respondents say they will increase their SOA activities in the next year, he adds.

Open source is fanning similar passions. In key categories including Web and app servers, open-source alternatives command larger market shares than commercial counterparts, thanks to high-profile software from organizations including Apache and JBoss.

“With service-oriented architectures, you’ve got a loose federation of different environments, and some of those can be opensource pieces,” says Robin Bloor, partner at researcher Hurwitz and Associates.

Commercial apps are still warm and cozy
The nexus of SOAand open source is still developing, partly because commercial products offer better out-of-the-box integration of SOA components than do most of the cobbled-together technologies available from the open-source world. There’s also a lingering comfort factor with commercial software for some applications.

“Customers tend to be more comfortable at this stage with commercial software for a lot of the high-end quality-of-service applications related to transaction processing or high availability,” says Carl Trieloff, director of open source for Iona Technologies, a developer of commercial and open-source integration products. “Today, you can build a full SOA out of open source, but [the technologies are] in the early stages, and you don’t have all the high-productivity development tools,” he adds.

Thus, while open source may be taking areas such as Web server development by storm, it isn’t always a choice for more leading-edge projects, such as SOA, says Michael Goulde, a Forrester analyst. “[IT departments] often implement open-source applications that are similar to ones they built with non-opensource products in the past,” he says.

“Open-source products have matured to the point where they are more than adequate for doing standard database work or standard Web application kind of work,” Goulde says. “But [developers] tend to push the envelope less with open source. People are concerned about support and the long-term roadmap for a lot of the open-source projects out there, so they are tending to stick with the safe path.”

As always, open source is attractive
Open source will be attractive for SOA implementations for many of the same reasons it’s becoming the [platform] of choice for other development projects. Goulde says the opportunity for innovation engendered by the open-source community’s hallmark collaborative development methods will be a draw for SOAdevelopers, too. “We’ve interviewed quite a few corporate developers, and they’re moving in the direction [of open source for SOA],” Goulde says. “So I would expect that in the next several years, a lot more will be done in terms of service-oriented architectures.”

Other attractions include the fast adoption of industry standards by the open-source community, compared to the jockeying that often takes place among commercial-software vendors who have financial stakes in promoting proprietary solutions. Commercial vendors also face longer and more drawn-out release cycles that delay adoption of standards or revisions to the specifications. By contrast, the standing philosophy within the opensource community is to “release early and often, which allows you to incorporate standards support very quickly,” Goulde points out.

Open-source users also like the fast responses they get when technical questions arise. “There are so many people using these tools that when we do have issues, the response is really fast,” says Corey Ostman, director of new technology initiatives at Pricegrabber, a vendor of online comparison-shopping services. Pricegrabber is a longtime user of the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP/Perl). “If something comes up in MySQL, for example, we’ll generate queries that we email directly to the MySQL support team. And because they are spread throughout the world, one day we might get an answer from New York, and another day it might be from Israel. There are so many developers out there, so many discussions going on, that information is always available.”

Adds RightNow’s Myer, “With proprietary technology, there’s actually a frustration with being at the mercy of the support staff. Oftentimes we know the tools better than the support person on the phone [does].”

The whole package matters
Commercial SOA software, from companies such as BEA, IBM, Oracle, SAP and Sun Microsystems, currently has a developmental leg up on open source by offering integrated core technologies, such as databases, application servers, Web services directories, services orchestration and perhaps an integrated development environment and an enterprise service bus.

“What you get is a fully developed vision of these different elements that fits them together for an overall picture for SOA,” Heffner says. “Each of the vendors vary in terms of exactly how they paint that picture, but it’s a larger picture of SOA in a more unified way” than what open source now offers. “In the opensource world, you have to cobble pieces together, and not all the pieces are there, at least in terms of being from big names.”

So for now, open-source adherents must mix and match with commercial offerings to launch their SOA environments.

Sometimes, roll-your-own is easier
Part of RightNow’s business model is the hosted environment it offers customers who want someone else to manage their CRM resources. The servers that run this environment rely on Linux as the core operating system, along with MySQL and Apache, the opensource database and Web server, respectively. RightNow uses the GNU Compiler Collection to build apps and the PHP scripting language to create the presentation layer for its programs. “It’s like a Web application on the server side,” Myer says.

To make remote procedure calls, Myer currently uses a proprietary protocol his company developed, but his group is now moving to Web services standard Simple Object Access Protocol, a transition planned for completion before mid-year. “To develop the SOAP interface, we created our own SOAP layer on the server side, so from our own application we are processing incoming SOAP requests,” he explains.

To do that, Myer uses the open-source tool, Libxml2, an XML C parser and toolkit originally created for the Gnome development platform. “At this point, it’s probably one of the best open-source XML parsers and XML stream processors out there,” Myer says. “We spent some time looking at the gSOAP[a Web services development toolkit] earlier this year, and while it was a reasonable tool, for us, the decision came down to the fact that we already essentially had a service-oriented architecture on the server. So we just needed to change the protocol for it. It was easier to roll some of our own technology there as opposed to standardizing on another tool.”

Interesting stuff on the horizon
The active development community devoted to open source means it’s almost inevitable that a wider range of SOAspecific technologies will come into being. “The world of open source is such that if you search long enough, you can find anything,” Heffner says. “But when you look at the bigger names, there’s not much that has been architected around SOA. However, there are some interesting initial pieces.”

Among the recent announcements is a toolset for which development is being fostered by Eclipse, the open-source community backed by BEA, Computer Associates, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Iona, SAP and others. The goal of the project, known as the SOATools Platform Project, is a framework and a set of development tools for creating, assembling and deploying SOA systems. “There’s not a lot of code there yet, but maybe in about a year or a year and a half there should be a fully open-source development suite for SOA,” Trieloff predicts.

Without a common toolset, SOAdevelopers need to do some on-the-fly integration of technologies if they’re committed to open source. “You don’t have tools specifically to say ‘I want a server here and I want a server there, and I want this link to talk to the following [components], and I want to apply the following policy,’” Trieloff observes. “So to actually construct the SOA from a high level today, you’d use the tools available to write the services in Java or C++ and then use specific tools to deploy the services. Then you have to use different management tools. So the proprietary SOAsuites look more integrated at this point than the open source.”

The open-source community is also planning its Version 1.0 release of a Java ESB by April of this year. It could smooth messaging in SOA environments. Known as Celtix, the opensource project is sponsored by Iona and hosted by ObjectWeb. “There is a huge amount of interest, and there’s a lot of work getting off the ground with this,” Goulde says.

Celtix participants say the ESB will be designed to provide technologies for connecting Web services with distributed SOAcomponents, including application servers, Web servers and legacy mainframe components.

Although the Celtix announcements generated a lot of buzz, not everyone believes the ESB is the key to jumpstarting open-source SOAs. “This Celtix technology is probably going to be good, so I’m not trying to denigrate it, but I’m a little skeptical about the enthusiasm for the bus,” Bloor cautions. “An ESB isn’t the foundation of SOA. There are a lot of SOA implementations that have been done completely without an ESB—and I’m talking about big insurance companies,” not only small, less complex implementations, he says.

For his part, Myer says his ongoing SOA interest is focused on Mono, an open-source initiative sponsored by Novell to create a development platform for running .NET applications on Linux and other operating systems. This effort would feed into RightNow’s work to move development of its Windowsbased user interface to .NET and C#. Mono could provide a valuable run-time framework. “I’d love to see the Mono project reach the point where we could take a full Windows user interface application and run it on Linux as well as on Windows.” Now that’s something to get your mind around.