Open-Source Software: Evolving Toward Broader Acceptance

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Businesses are more seriously considering open source for all layers of the software stack.


Open source is assessed for more than half of businesses software acquisitions, according to Saugatuck Technology, a research and consulting firm. A survey conducted in April showed that 53 percent of respondents were already using open-source applications in their enterprises and that 44 percent considered open-source applications equally during acquisition processes with proprietary applications. While this may surprise some, most businesses no longer carry the negative perceptions once associated with open-source solutions. The software is in use in some of the world's largest corporations and governments, in some of the most intensive application environments. In addition, open source is easy to acquire within many organizations compared to commercial solutions. Many consider open-source software to be of higher quality and security because of the many developers involved as well as their collaboration processes. However, there remains a significant amount of confusion about open source: what features it offers, how much it costs, how to license it, how well it integrates, and how to accomplish support. These issues feed the overriding issue for most enterprises, which is weighing, and then managing, the risk of using open source.


According to the Open Source Initiative, "Open source is a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in."


Businesses feel the pull of open source because of the perceived low costs, the ability to modify the software themselves, and the desire to unlatch from expensive proprietary software. In some cases, open source is part of a broadening of deployment and architecture options to respond to changing internal, customer, and partner requirements. After all, with open source, a company does not have to worry about issues such as rising license fees for growing use or changing platforms. While open-source operating systems such as Linux are the most notable alternatives to their commercial counterparts, open-source options also exist for applications of all sorts, databases, development tools, and network/systems management programs.


One reason so many organizations are looking at open-source solutions is the relative ease of accessing them. Evaluation and procurement are often handled differently for open-source software. Many organizations simply download open source from the Internet. The Mozilla Firefox browser, for example, is widely used in enterprises. In some cases, enterprises evaluate the software and then decide to opt for a version supported by a vendor, for example Red Hat's Linux. At that point, the procurement should move through the same processes as those followed for commercial software. However, they might elect to use the downloaded software as is, leaving it up to the employees to ensure proper use. To prevent conflicts with other software and fit to enterprise architectures, it behooves organizations to have policies for download and use of open-source software.


The open-source and proprietary-source solutions are converging, which further adds to the confusion around open source. For example, many open-source vendors now provide interoperability, service, and support and are moving to more traditional business models, sometimes called "commercial open source" (e.g., Collabnet, Compiere, OpenLogic, Red Hat, SugarCRM, and SpikeSource). Meanwhile, many vendors of proprietary solutions now offer free offerings based on open source while encouraging community collaboration and development. For example, Sun offers its Java technologies while seeking worldwide collaboration through its Java Collaboration Process. Furthermore, open-source companies are being acquired by commercial vendors; Sun recently paid $1 billion for the open-source database provider My SQL. Novell essentially transformed itself from a proprietary vendor to a commercial open-source company. This convergence suggests the need to evaluate candidate open-source solutions and their vendors using the same criteria by which they evaluate proprietary alternatives.


Organizations do not inherit risk automatically when using open-source software applications. Risk from the license perspective comes from source code modification and redistribution. There are several widely used open-source licenses:


•  Apache License

•  New and Simplified Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) licenses

•  GNU General Public License (GPL)

•  GNU Library or "Lesser" General Public License (LGPL)

•  MIT license

•  Mozilla Public License  (MPL)

•  Common Development and Distribution License

•  Common Public License

•  Eclipse Public License


Some licenses allow proprietary extensions. Others, such as the GNU General Public License (GPL) is more restrictive and mandates that, if the source code will be redistributed, any and all modifications must be contributed back to the source tree. There is no need to audit all source code or understand every open-source license. However, employees using source code should understand open-source licensing and the relationship to intellectual property issues. There have been lawsuits for violations. Leading some of the lawsuits is the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), a New York-based not-for-profit legal services organization that provides legal representation and other law-related services to protect and advance Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). In late 2007, Monsoon Multimedia had to defend its use of BusyBox, a set of UNIX utilities covered under the GPL. In March 2008, Verizon settled out of court with BusyBox developers. In June of this year, SFLC filed two more lawsuits on behalf of the BusyBox developers, alleging Bell Microproducts and Super Micro Computer violated the GPL. External source code enters from several sources other than open source, including consultants and vendors of commercial-source software. Licenses for open-source software licenses reflect whether and under what terms the licensee can modify and redistribute the source code. Therefore, it is important for organizations to be sure they have permission to use all relevant open- and commercial-source code in combination with their products.


Many open-source vendors own rights to all of their source code, allowing them to use a dual-license model to provide both fee-based commercial software licenses and no-cost open source licenses to a broader community. These dual-license solutions make sense when there is a desire to build upon an open-source project in combination with the protections of a commercial license. Microsoft now provides its Open Specification Promise (OSP) developed to address the issue of patent liability for those who implement certain Microsoft technologies including Microsoft's Open Office XML (OOXML) file format, certain Web services, Office binary file formats, virtual hard drive application programming interfaces, as well as some security and graphics specifications. However, while Microsoft claims this is an open source move, critics say the OSP does not provide enough assurance to developers. According to published reports, IBM, Sun, and Oracle have issued similar legal documents. A recent SFLC paper says that the OSP promise should not be relied upon because of Microsoft's ability to revoke the promise for future versions of specifications, the promise's limited scope, and its incompatibility with free software licenses, including the GPL.


One result of all this change in open-source software is that software vendors are modifying their businesses in order to better compete with and complement open-source solutions. Based in part on open-source influences, vendors are changing how they develop, sell, license, deploy, support, and retire software. The trend in the vendor world is toward increasing the mix of open and proprietary solutions with community collaboration approaches, combined with adding Software as a Service (SaaS) alternatives.


IBM offers extensive support for open source. Most notable is its support of Linux on many of its hardware platforms with accompanying fee-based support. IBM also supports The Apache Software Foundation (which provides organizational, legal, and financial support for a broad range of open-source software projects) and participates in several of its key projects. Another open-source institution with extensive IBM contribution is The Eclipse Foundation, an open-source community with projects "focused on building an open development platform comprised of extensible frameworks, tools and runtimes for building, deploying and managing software across the lifecycle." With hardware, IBM plays a key role in, a collaborative organization and developer community focused on accelerating the development and adoption of open blade-server platforms. IBM provides technology developed through its open-source blade initiatives.


IBM also embraces Java, which was developed by Sun Microsystems. The Java Community Process (JCP) is an open organization of Java developers and licensees that develops and revises Java technology specifications, reference implementations, and technology compatibility kits. In 2007, Sun made the bulk of its core Java technology available as open-source software under the GNU general public license version 2 (GPLv2). IBM provides several Java-based solutions as part of its software offering and provides services for many others.


For enterprises, open source can be confusing. It is important for businesses to evaluate open-source software the same ways they evaluate proprietary solutions. Also, they should understand the different licenses and their implications. Lastly, they need to understand the open-source communities to determine how to obtain fixes and support. One such resource is The Linux Foundation, through which one can learn about how to evaluate and deploy the Linux operating systems.


Open source is in the enterprise to stay. Therefore, it is important for businesses to understand it and embrace it where appropriate.