Open-source software in the data center

There is a place for it, but it won't do everything.

Disappearing open-source projects?

Another notion that can give Corporate America pause when figuring out whether to use open source in the data center is that sometimes an open-source project listed on SourceForge.net or elsewhere can start off with a bang and then simply go off the radar.

"A few years ago," says Link, "we started with some promising code within an open-source project that was doing quite well and the original author was very active." He had "a strong following" and made "consistent updates, timely bug fixes and rapid innovation," says Link. "Then, all of a sudden, the primary author seemed to just drop off the planet, and the community around the project did not step up, or have the controls, to keep the project going strong."

As a result, Link says, his company's engineers had to eventually rip out that component -- an open-source Python library -- and replace it with a new component, which had to be modified to work with ScienceLogic's existing code base. This was an expensive lesson, because ScienceLogic had to rip out the old libraries and integrate the new libraries, in addition to redoing all of its testing against the new libraries. It took about six months of manpower effort and delayed other important projects. "So be very careful when choosing an open-source solution," advises Link. "Be sure it actually has a strong track record of consistent innovation and rapid delivery of patches/fixes."

"It's true that each open-source solution has its own process for managing updates," says Steve Brasen, an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates (EMA) in Boulder, Colo. "But, in general, a designated panel of developers periodically determines which new features, fixes and upgrades should be included in a patch or release."

Updates are then made available from a central repository or open-source supplier such as a forum, Web site or member group, adds Brasen. Support organizations automatically provide these updates to end users as part of a maintenance contract, and some vendors, including Red Hat Inc., bundle releases of multiple open-source applications that they support as a packaged suite. Companies that invest in a support contract usually find that the process is reliable and efficient; however, those without these contracts find it cumbersome and labor-intensive.

To Brasen's knowledge, no one is tracking the actual number of allegedly disappearing open-source projects. But with more than 150,000 registered open-source projects, abandonment by some is inevitable, he says.

The costs of 'free' software

"Open source means free as in freedom, not free as in cost, although it often is," says Dirk Morris, chief technology officer and founder of Untangle, an open-source development company whose customers are small and midsize businesses.

However, notes Morris, even though users gain flexibility, reliability, security and ease of adoption with open source, these benefits are far from free. "Be aware that open-source products are often not a complete product offering." Also, the quality of open source varies widely, he says, so users must choose carefully.

"There is always a cost involved; either a support cost to the vendor or an internal cost of management," says Gartner's Kumar. He advises clients to review their portfolios and understand that some applications are better-suited for open source than others. There is a trend toward running more mainstream and transaction-intensive applications on open-source platforms, he says, and in this context, management tasks like virtualization will become a necessity.

Kumar recommends that clients determine the availability and manageability requirements of each application and then verify whether the open-source platform can and will work with their existing environment. And last, he says, you should determine the cost of the new open-source software and take a realistic view of what the cost differences will be from your existing environment.

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