Utility to make IT framework open-source

US utility, Duke Power Co., plans to go from consumer of open-source software to contributor on September 1 by making an internally developed application framework available to other companies through the SourceForge.net Web site.

The Charlotte-based power company spent about 1,000 hours over the course of a year building its framework, which supports development of applications built around Microsoft's .Net technology. By turning the framework over to the open-source community, Duke hopes that other corporate developers will improve on its work.

"This is somewhat of an experiment to see how much value can be gained from the open-source community," said Charlie Ward, the utility's manager of technical architecture. He added that because Duke's developers have been active users of open-source software, they now want to give something back to open-source developers.

It's difficult to gauge how many other user companies have turned significant application development initiatives into open-source projects.

Patrick McGovern, director of SourceForge.net, said the site gets about 70 new open-source projects each day, but it doesn't track their lineage. He said what Duke is doing is "certainly not unique," but he couldn't provide an estimate of how many similar projects have been launched.

Earlier this year, Brunswick's Web Den Interactive (WDI) technology subsidiary used SourceForge.net to release an open-source business-integration engine that it had built to help connect WDI's independent dealers. But WDI has now released its application integration tool as a commercial product, called Redberri, said a WDI spokesman.

Mark Driver, an analyst at Gartner, said he has heard about individual programmers getting permission from their employers to make software components available under open-source licenses. But Driver said he hasn't seen any major companies make significant portions of their custom development work open-source.

Many companies have been hesitant to release their work on an open-source basis because of intellectual property concerns, Driver said. He added that service and support are also issues because open-source projects require commitments of time and money. "What doesn't work is just dumping the software onto a developer portal," he said.

Thomas Murphy, an analyst at Meta Group, also said that lots of companies have released pieces of their code to the open-source community. But he doesn't think many will push out frameworks like the one Duke is releasing. "Sharing your competitive differentiators normally is seen as a bad idea in commercial entities," Murphy said.

Seeking Support

But Duke doesn't view the framework as a competitive advantage. "Duke Power is not a software company. We're an energy company," Ward said. "We're more interested in getting continued support from the open-source community to improve our software."

The idea for the open-source contribution took shape as Duke began to define an enterprisewide architecture to support its business needs and reduce development costs, according to Ward. Duke wanted a common framework to enforce consistency, reduce the amount of work its developers need to do and help them transition from Microsoft's Visual Basic 6 to the object-oriented development tools they will use with the newer Visual Studio .Net technology.

The framework that Duke will release under the open-source Common Public License includes a data abstraction and data access layer; exception logging (built on Log4net open-source technology); EncryptionHelper, which aids in encapsulating encryption/decryption sequences; XMLHelper for serialization and deserialization of objects to and from XML and XML schema validation; SecurityHelper, for authenticating and authorizing against an Active Directory domain; and an XMLMessage object.

In addition, Duke will release models and Unified Modeling Language diagrams that describe how the pieces can be used with .Net applications. Demonstration applications will also be included, as will Microsoft's freely available SQL Helper Data Access tool.

To spread the word about its open-source contribution, Duke plans to make a presentation next month before the 750-member Enterprise Developers Guild in Charlotte. Marc Ginns, a lead application developer at Duke, said the company already has received four pages of suggested additions and changes to the framework from guild members.

Bill Jones Jr., president of the guild and a software architect at Charlotte-based MetaLogix Inc., said a group of developers in the local Microsoft community are excited about the Duke project's potential to increase productivity. He said the "reference architecture" will let the developers focus on business logic instead of low-level plumbing.

"They've put together several key components common to most projects, whether Web or Windows," Jones said about Duke. "They worked out the architecture and thought through how things should work together. I won't say they've solved every problem, but they've solved a lot of the big ones."

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