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The Myths of Open Source

The Myths of Open Source

It isn't all about cheap: Companies keep finding good reasons to take advantage of open-source software.

At first glance, the company Employease seems unremarkable. But look a little closer. Employease, which provides employee benefits administration services to more than 1000 organizations across America, has an IT architecture chiefly built around open-source software, which makes it a rare bird - not that it was planned that way when the company was founded in 1996.

"It's been quite a surprise to me. The open-source model just seems intuitively wrong," says John Alberg, the company's co-founder, CIO, CTO and vice president of engineering. But the facts speak for themselves.

The company's 25 production application servers run on Red Hat Linux, having been switched from Windows NT in July 2000. Web pages once delivered by Netscape are now served by Apache, supplemented by Tomcat, an open-source Java servlet engine. Send an e-mail to Employease and it's processed by Sendmail, an open-source mail server, while the company's software developers use XEmacs, an open-source development tool.

But that's not all. Although the company's main applications use Informix for database management, Alberg happily confesses that he can see a time when the proprietary software will be displaced by MySQL, an open-source relational database system already used by the company for less critical applications. Snort, an open-source intrusion detection tool, is also under active consideration, says Alberg.

Companies such as Employease herald a sea change in corporate attitudes toward open-source software. Once seen as flaky, cheap and the work of amateur developers, open source has emerged blinking into the daylight. With unrestricted access to the source code to run or modify at will, and support coming from an ad hoc collection of software developers and fellow users, the open-source model is very different from proprietary software. But it is nevertheless proving attractive enough for a host of CIOs to make the switch. So who's using open source? Why are they using it? And are the benefits worth the risks? The answers are surprising - and dispel some of the myths surrounding open source.

MYTH 1

THE ATTRACTION IS THE PRICE TAG

One of open source's most touted benefits is its price. Download the software, install it - and don't pay a cent. That's the theory. But to a surprising number of open-source user companies, the price tag - or lack of one - is irrelevant. "It's not about being cheap," insists Employease's Alberg. "It's about doing our jobs effectively - and we're willing to pay quite a bit for that. We want stable software that does what it says it will do."

What Alberg finds fascinating about moving to open source is the performance improvement that resulted. The move to Linux, for example, dramatically cut the rate of server failure experienced by the company. Typically, under NT, one of the company's servers would fail each working day. Now, he says, "we get at most two failures a month - and often don't get any in a month".

Linux also runs Alberg's applications faster than NT, a fact that has meant that despite more than doubling its business since 2000, the company hasn't needed to buy more servers. "Linux increased our capacity by between 50 percent and 75 percent," says Alberg.

Even so, Alberg is careful to make clear that his commitment to open source isn't the blind buying behaviour of a zealot. He wouldn't, for example, go open source if it were more expensive than proprietary code. "Solaris is a strong commercial operating system. We'd choose it over open source if we found it to be less expensive," he says. "[While] cost is a huge driver for our decision-making process, we cannot risk choosing an inferior solution to save money. We couldn't even consider open source if it weren't at par with - or in some cases better than - commercial alternatives."

Ask many users of open source and a similar story emerges. "Cost savings weren't really a factor in our decision to go open source," says John Novak, CIO of 330-plus hotel chain La Quinta, which is moving its online booking system - previously on BEA's WebLogic - to a combination of Apache, JBoss and Tomcat. "What got us into it was that it was simply the best technology open to us."

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