by May 1, 2005 0 comments



A contemporary enterprise is flooded with challenges in IT, whether it be better security or storage implementations, or the recently emerging compliance angle. In the face of such a challenge, the role of an IT department depends on the delicate balancing act between fulfilling needs and justifying the cost of meeting those needs. More often than not, the route chosen by IT managers is to deploy open source in a bid to save on costs. The crux of this justification often hinges on keeping your enterprise up to date on technology-not necessarily at the bleeding edge. However, is this balance being tipped overly when enterprises push for a complete open source makeover? Or is it really worth it? To find the answers to these questions, one must consider what the right reasons for selecting open source are and how one must implement them on the ground. Let’s start with some myths.

The end user is not going to be too concerned whether you are using open-source software or not. They are going to be concerned about whether the applications work the way they want them to, without hitches or hiccups.
The management is going to be pressurizing you to reduce costs all around.
As one with serious responsibilities towards both these constituencies, your decisions will have to be a judicious mix of both the needs.
Where there exist proven open-source applications, why not use them? Where there are open source applications that are “almost there”, why not try pilot projects with them? And where they are inferior to other commercial applications, why compromise for the cause of philosophy?

Clearing some misconceptions
Most of the press regarding open source deployments focuses either on the Linux OS market share or on Web-centric servers. However, this is not the only combination you can use to deploy open-source software. Open source is a concept of distribution, not a platform. It defines how software is distributed and how it can be used and, thus, can apply
to software on any platform- Linux, Windows, the Mac or something else. There is a significant number of open-source software available on multiple platforms. Software such as Apache, MySQL, SugarCRM, Compiere’s ERP/CRM application on the backend side are open source. On the desktop side, we have OpenOffice.org, KOffice, GIMP, Gaim, Scribus and
Firefox. 

Open-source support
Any IT service provider worth his brand name would only be too happy to set up and support open source enterprise software. IBM, HP,
Infosys, Wipro, HCL, … you name it, and all of them have fairly robust open source practices.
If your deployments are on Linux, the Linux distribution vendor (RedHat,
SuSE) could also be of assistance, or could direct you to consultants.

In fact, a further distinction we need to make here is that ‘open source software’ and ‘free software’ are two completely different things. Software is ‘free’ if it is available to you at no cost. With such software, there would be no liabilities attributable to the people who made it. There would be no official channels for getting support with it and no account executives to take care of your needs with that software. The distinction between ‘open source’ and other kinds of software is that open source ones have their source codes freely available. Note that it’s not that the software would be available free of cost. But, the big crunch here is the fact that most enterprises have no use for such source code and rarely bother themselves with modifying or customizing it. What we mean to say is: open-source software too costs you money and sometimes almost as much as its proprietary cousins.

Some open-source software, on the other hand, may be available to you at no cost, but would cost money for support, deployment assistance, updates and if you need it, training. Phrases used in their literature such as ‘premium support’ and ‘subscription’ indicate additional costs. Under premium support, you would get an account manager and a helpline to attend to your problems and issues. Subscription can be for both updates and management. The RHN (RedHat Network), for instance, is a subscription service that offers automatic software updates as well as centralized management features for an enterprise-wide deployment. 
Using open-source software in the right places can help you cut costs. And this is the reason enterprises give today when they choose to deploy open-source
software. But where do you cross over the line and pay more than you would save?

Mental roadblocks
What is the biggest challenge of an IT department implementing an open-source environment? The most frequently stated concern is the resistance from end users. This could be because they expect a steep learning curve using the new software. Like we said earlier, this is primarily because people hear the phrase ‘open source’ and automatically think of Linux. This still forms a mental roadblock for many users. Internal workshops could be held to assauge their concerns.Many open-source applications copy the look and feel of their proprietary cousins, in order to ease the learning curve. 

Technical support & documentation
Even five years ago, as a user of open source applications you had to find newsgroups and forums, post your problem there and wait for a reply. But today there are user groups who can provide same day or atleast next business-day support. While they may not have expertise while dealing with specific CRM and ERP packages, they would be able to troubleshoot system, networking and deployment problems, and help you fix them quickly. Since most deployment or upgrade-related problems boil down to broken toolkit files, the user groups can help you faster since the the procedures fix these problems are well publicized. You may also train an in-house team to manage and maintain the software you deploy. Some software have certifications available-for example, RHCE for Linux. In fact, because of this vendor-backing from firms such as Intel, IBM and Sun, the pool of experts is growing constantly.

A vital source for support is the software’s documentation. Open-source projects frequently use dedicated teams to manage each set of documentation. Software documentation often comes in three parts. Command help or ‘man pages’ that you can call up from the command line to learn about the particular options you can pass on to commands. There is the detailed manual-available on the product distribution, their website or locally after installation-which tells you all about that application. Finally there would be a quick-start guide with instructions on getting your deployment up and running quickly.

Updates and feedback
Patches and updates are needed for all software, open sourced or otherwise. Several widely used open-source software projects such as Apache, MySQL, phpBB release updates on a regular basis. This is possible because each project maintains a feedback system, either using the BugZilla software (open source also) or through their own forums. Users of these software login regularly to provide feedback and information about any bugs they may have come across. Many also take the time to contribute their own improvements to the project.

Is the source code really
important?
If you are an IT user organization and not a software or service vendor then chances are that you will not do too much with the source code. Your primary benefit will come from the reduced costs of the software licenses you need to deploy.
Service and support costs are also unlikely to be any lesser.

Open source for enterprises
Enterprises can use open-source applications too. There are atleast three major vendors of open source ERP applications-compiere.org, fisterra.com and Daffodil. Many of these ERP applications also bundle CRM and sales force automation software. XRMS is a similar open source ERP project on SourceForge.net. SugarCRM is a very popular and easy-to-use CRM app- lication that’s open source. If you want to do low-cost super-computing, you have Oscar and for cluster computing, there is OpenMOSIX, another SourceForge project. Applications such as IssueTracker and phpBB take care of feedback management, while NullGroupware is for calendaring and messaging and mediaWiki does knowledge management.

Strategic deployment
In an enterprise, there are two arenas where a platform or software can be changed-one, at the server/back-end side and the other at the workstation side. A server-side change affects only a small percentage of users, since no one actually uses the features on the server itself -the client-side applications package them for the user; the file server OS does not matter as long as the end-user can easily retrieve his files when needed and it is protected from unauthorized access or change. However, on the client side, a change may see a strong opposition from your workforce to an unfamiliar and new system. 

Server software
On the server side, software licenses come into play in a significant way. Although most open-source software is not directly impacted by the traditional concept of licenses, you would need to find out how many servers (for instance) your software is allowed to run on. For example, the MySQL database software is open source but is available under a commercial license also. Under the commercial license, you are required to purchase a separate license for each database server that you run MySQL on. The same vendor (MySQL AB) also has another product called MaxDB, also open source, licensed per CPU or per user. So, while you may have an open-source software copy, it may still not be under GPL and, hence , have certain restrictions placed on its deployment or use. 

Infrastructure servers such as your DHCP, DNS and e-mail can be deployed on open source with a minimum of fuss, since their functioning is completely invisible to the end user. Much of what you need are usually already bundled with the network OS you install on these servers. These are also easy to set up and maintain. Perimeter devices such as firewalls, proxy servers, standalone IPS systems, anti-virus and anti-spam filters would be the next in line for consideration. We put these second, because the number of choices available for this range of software is less. SELinux is a good option for a policy-based security system on Linux. Squid finds great favor as a lightweight, robust and easily configurable proxy server. Both are open source. While SELinux is available only for Linux, Squid is available for Windows as well. In fact the only server-side software you would need to really think twice about would be your Web, database and your enterprise application’s server software. This is because your needs in this direction directly dictate what platform and software you deploy and according to that the option of an open-source alternative appears or vanishes. However, as discussed, options are available, in plenty if you should require it. Apache is a well known free, open source multi-platform Web server. Perl, PHP and Python language systems used for Web applications are also there. And like we said earlier, there are tons of enterprise applications (see Open source for enterprises section) as well.

Commercial
open source
Many vendors of open-source
applications also provide commercial versions with added support packages and extra features. These include:
JBoss: Application server
Sugar Sales: CRM
Metadot: Portal server
MySQL: Database server
MOSIX: Cluster computing

Workstation software
Most often when we hear about someone using open source software, it is always at the server side. How much press do you see on someone actually using open-source applications on their workstations? Not much, even though you will find that most categories of desktop productivity applications readily available in open source. A user weaned on one application would find another similar-purpose application a little hard to master. And this is the most often stated reason for sticking with an existing setup. The only way this challenge can be overcome is by conducting workshops for these users to acclimatize them to the new system.

Bargaining point
Negotiators in the know are known to use the prospect of deploying an open source solution to drive down the cost of proprietary solutions. There is no reason why you should not benefit from a similar approach. It might help your argument to have a pilot up and running in the meanwhile.

Standalone systems and network groups like your security desk, 

reception systems and access terminals for guests can be migrated first and then focus can be shifted to core line-of-business systems. Each user’s workstation runs many applications. Typically, they would have productivity applications, messaging and collaboration clients, and clients to your enterprise applications. For some of this software, you would not have a free hand to decide whether to use open source since they would be dictated by other needs. Therefore, on some desktops, you may need to use a mix of
commercial and open-source applications.

Fact or myth?
Open source means ‘free’
Myth:
You might need to pay for support and services. Some open source products cost money to acquire the product itself

Open source means Linux
Myth:
Windows, Mac and Unix also have open-source software written for them

Open source software is buggy and amateurish
Myth:
Linux, Apache and PHP are three of the most widely used open-source software and they are used and known for their robustness and quality

Open source software has a steep learning curve
Perhaps:
If you are migrating from different software, this can be a
factor any time, not just with open-source software. A huge number of applications have a graphical interface, copying their proprietary cousins, smoothing the learning curve

Open source allows you to modify the application
Not necessarily:
The source code is always there if you need to modify or customize it; but it is highly unlikely that most of you will have the resources for that

Open source means goodbye to patches
Myth:
All software need updates and patches to keep them free of
defects and or increase functionality. The need for patches has nothing to do with it being open source

Open source applications are only for small businesses
Myth:
Although it helps them by reducing startup costs, a range of
enterprise-class products including ERP applications are available too and there is no reason why enterprises cannot take advantage of open source

Open source applications have poor documentation
Myth:
There are several categories of documentation available, right from command help to detailed how-to and quick-start guides

Krishna Kumar and Sujay V Sarma

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