O'REILLY - Open source: For infrastructure geeks or mum

A pair of executives from Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. and Cisco Systems Inc., speaking at an industry conference here Wednesday, offered sharply diverging views of how open-source software will evolve, with the banking executive championing its strength at infrastructure, and the networking vendor calling for consumer friendly applications.

Open source software development -- which typically involves groups of programmers collaborating to develop freely available software over the Internet -- has been and will remain key to helping the world's largest companies survive in a highly competitive global environment, said W. Phillip Moore, executive director of enterprise application infrastructure at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., speaking at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention. Moore's comments sparked several rounds of applause, as he pointed to numerous reasons open-source software allows his company to survive in instances where commercial software would fail.

"A lot of open-source technology continues to beat commercial models hands down," Moore said. "When I am trying to craft my enterprise, some changes are small, and if I have to go back to the vendor to make changes it is an uphill battle. They control the changes. With open source, I can make the changes I need for my infrastructure."

For Moore, the value of open source software such as the Linux operating system and the Apache Web server is simple -- his company needs to move quickly and open source developments are often the only way to move quick enough. Morgan Stanley spends millions of dollars for most of its commercial software products, and the company becomes tied to how their software vendors advance and support their products, he said.

Morgan Stanley must unite computing systems in 52 cities around the world with different divisions running software form IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Silicon Graphics Inc. and others. Without being able to tap the open source community for patches, bug fixes, and customized modifications, the company could never guarantee that its options traders will receive up to the second information on the trading room floor while serving home users who can check their stock portfolios anywhere in the world, Moore said.

While Moore looks for open source to keep driving software technology infrastructure, Fred Baker, a fellow at Cisco Systems Inc., pushed the open source community to move out of the back end and begin making applications "for Mom," he said, while speaking at the conference.

"What the open-source community has done well is develop tools that have a good set of features and meet a lot of peoples' needs," he said. "What it has not been good at is taking that skill and delivering it to the a consumer market. I am not going to give my mom Perl. I am going to give her products built with Perl."

While piecemeal innovation has paid off with open source software in many cases, developers need to begin thinking about the average end user when writing applications, and open source companies need to closely emulate the support practices of the commercial software world, Baker said.

"The laptop that I use runs a piece of software that comes from the Pacific Northwest, and I have to say it is very predictable," he said, referring to Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system.

Companies need to know how software was built, how a company tested the software and why a company made decisions to use once piece of code over another. In an open source model, this kind of documentation is often muddled by a slew of developers making contributions to an application in a sometimes disjointed manner.

In addition, patenting certain code protects a company like Cisco from facing intellectual property disputes and other struggles down the line, Baker added.

Open source developers should wrap their code writing skills and community process in some of the trappings of the corporate world in order to maximize the value of the development method, Baker said.

"I expect open source will continue to excel and make some cool tools available and will do so in a partnership with the business world," he said. "You need to figure out for yourselves how we can take this methodology and make [applications] truly available."

Baker's comments drew a response from Moore.

"Yes, there are some commercial software companies that are a pleasure to work with, so I hear," he said. "But when you buy a commercial software product, and you spend millions of dollars, you are placing a bet on the stability of that company moving forward and the stability of that product moving forward.

"At the end of the day we are spending frightening amounts of money on commercial software," Moore added. "With open source, we get more for our money."

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Ashlee Vance

Computerworld

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