Wrestling with Competitive Give-Back

By Doug Bartholomew  |  Posted 2008-03-28 Print this article Print

Think open-source software is ready-made for your infrastructure? Baseline gets real with open-source customers to find out the challenges and successes in working with vendors, customization, documentation and licensing. 

Ironically, those kinds of competitive worries are yet another potential barrier for some companies considering adopting open source. Some companies fear that, once they cobble together a new Web application or e-commerce solution whose functionality suits their business’ needs, if they put it in the public domain, their competitors may use it.

“We’re still struggling with the question of how much code to give back to the open- source community—especially to our competitors,” says Jon Williams, CTO at Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, a $2 billion division of the Washington Post Company with 200 test preparatory locations for people taking the SAT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT and many other standardized tests. Kaplan, which derives 50 percent of its enrollment online, used open-source software from Alfresco for its Web site platform. 

But some companies are less worried about the proprietary downside of open-source. “We’re a newspaper company, not a technology company,” says the New York Times’ Gottfrid. “We weren’t nervous about our open-source database layer being used by the Washington Post for a competitive advantage.”

Others are even less concerned about things proprietary.

“We are at the point where we are ready to start contributing software back,” says Julian Lambert, global e-business director at Shimano, the Japan-based sporting goods manufacturer. “I’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid.”     

Yet another obstacle to many businesses adopting open source is that the software often requires customizing, meaning that expertise is needed to write fresh code to make an open-source program work the way a company wants it to.

“Open-source is not do it yourself,” says Williams of Kaplan.

Even though Kaplan had already built a team of open-source veterans led by executive director of architecture Gautam Guliani (coauthor of the book, Open Source for the Enterprise), Williams brought in the vendor Rivet Logic for help.

“We actually code-built our Web site with them, using Alfresco and JBOSS,” Williams says.

Therein lies another potential rub for organizations looking to deploy open source—the vendor relationship.

“A relationship with an open-source vendor is a very lean relationship,” Williams cautions.  “They’re not going to jump on a plane and meet you at 8 a.m. the next day. It’s a trust relationship. They stand behind their product. There is no spin. It’s a frank, two-way relationship.”

Generally, though, with that relationship comes greater freedom to switch.

“The relationship is renewable on an annual basis,” William says. “The open-source vendor would probably like to lock me in (for more than one year), but I am more likely to renew when I know I have a choice. Red Hat wanted me to sign a three-year agreement, and I asked why, because I felt that was counter to the open-source mentality. As open-source vendors get larger (like Red Hat has), we may see more of this.”   

All too often, another drawback to using open-source software is a relative dearth of documentation.

“I’d say one of the biggest challenges for us is the documentation—or lack thereof,” says Johnson of the Los Angeles Times. “The documentation is rather weak in a lot of open-source products.”

Besides poor documentation, many companies are concerned about support for the software. With software that is community based, there is the perception that getting support will be tough.

For Shimano, the Japan-based maker of sporting goods, the solution was to use a vendor for one open-source program and depend on its own IT staff for the rest.

“With Alfresco, we go with vendor support,” Lambert says. “With other open-source software, it’s a matter of keeping the staff we have—they are our support.”

An alternative source of support is the open-source community.

“We do have some support contracts with vendors, but we go to the community user boards to search for solutions to problems,” says Johnson of the Los Angeles Times.

With the surge in open-source popularity, finding IT staff who understand the open-source concept and can work with this software is not an issue, many companies have learned. In fact, the reverse is true—companies using open-source have found it easier to attract and retain talented IT staff because they have embraced the open-source concept.

“Developers continually crave new technologies and new skills, and open source is a fresh new technology,” explains Kaplan’s Williams. “Open source is an absolutely incredible tool for motivating and retaining IT talent.”

Doug Bartholomew is a career journalist who has covered information technology for more than 15 years. A former senior editor at IndustryWeek and InformationWeek, his freelance features have appeared in New York magazine and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. He has a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University.

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