Wrestling with Competitive Give-Back

 
 
By Doug Bartholomew  |  Posted 2008-03-28
 
 
 

If you haven’t drunk the open-source software Kool-Aid yet, there’s a good chance you will soon.

That was pretty much the consensus about open-source software at the Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco this week. While there certainly is no paucity of stumbling blocks for organizations to negotiate when adopting open-source software, many companies are finding ways to overcome them so they can reap the benefits of non-proprietary software.

“We haven’t met any customers that just want to turn open source off, because they realize how much value there is in it,” says Karl Paetzel, marketing manager of the Open Source and Linux Organization at Hewlett-Packard. “When we talk with IT management at our customers, they say they want to do more with open source.”

One of the first issues companies must come to grips with when considering open-source software is licenses. That’s right, licenses.

In the world of technology, it seems even so-called free stuff often comes with a legal string or two that must be knotted and tied.

“Some people don’t realize there are licenses associated with open-source software,” says Paetzel. An HP site launched in January, FOSSBazaar.org, includes a license detection agent that helps companies manage their open-source licenses, he adds.

“We actually just picked licenses that we liked,” says Derek Gottfrid, senior software architect at NYTimes.com. “The Grey Lady” used open-source solutions for at least three different Web applications. 

*Read how one innovator wants to use an open-source mobile mesh network as for reducing urban gridlock with cars and trucks.


At the Los Angeles Times, the licensing issue has been a bit of a thorny issue, according to David Johnson, managing director of software engineering in the newspaper’s Web Publishing Services group.

“We need to learn about the license and see if it will fit in with what we’re doing,” Johnson says. “I don’t want to encumber our own developers with license that would require us to share, because there are certain proprietary aspects to the software we create.”

 


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.”