Open-source software in the data center

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

Not everyone's a fan

But some experts still advise caution when it comes to open source. "Apart from lower pricing, there are limited gains at the moment," says analyst Rakesh Kumar, an analyst at Gartner. "There is an argument that users [of open source] gain access to a larger skill set than with other platforms," he says, referring to the notion that many eyes debug and look at open-source code.

Overall, though, "what they give up is much more interesting," Kumar maintains. Users of open-source applications must be careful about security, Kumar says, and they should do research into which industrial-strength software is available for any given mission-critical environment. Fail-over tools, energy-management tools and tools that allow for mixed-workload management are "generally more mature on the RISC/Unix platform," he says.

Opus Interactive, a managed solutions provider in Portland, Oregon, explored open-source load-balancing and firewall projects as cheap alternatives for clients that would not pay for commercial appliances, says Jeremy Sherwood, business solutions executive at Opus.

"We looked at Packet Filter [PF] and found that running PF on OpenBSD or FreeBSD is an excellent option and one we are confident is solid and secure," he says. However, while Opus still actively sells and supports PF on OpenBSD and FreeBSD for its clients, it mostly uses open-source tools in situations involving smaller clients with limited budgets or in environments that need unified server hardware or ones that need to run a specific operating system.

For large clients, Opus uses commercial appliances from Global Technology Associates, Cisco Systems and Array Networks for firewalls and load balancers, adds Sherwood. These are highly developed offerings from companies with 24/7 support and access. The products are well documented, and they often offer many more features than their open-source counterparts and are easier to support across all tiers of support technicians, Sherwood explains. These commercial products also offer high-availability options supported by the vendors along with advanced replacement and hardware warranties.

Opus also reviewed open-source monitoring and statistics projects to cover its entire infrastructure and client solutions. "We looked at Cacti and JFFNMS. We used JFFNMS for over a year in production because it was relatively easy to set up and had a large amount of functionality, worked well and, of course, only cost us the labor to set up and maintain it." The company also tried Nagios as a monitoring tool but, in the end, migrated to a commercial package from ScienceLogic called EM7, which handles monitoring, statistics, ticketing and many ITIL-related functions.

Control: A big benefit, and a curse

Dave Gynn, director of enterprise tools and frameworks at Optaros Inc., a consulting and systems integration firm, says open source "absolutely" fits into the data center. "Open-source software excels in heterogeneous environments," he says. "In fact, there are many open-source tools available for data centers, such as systems management products, which include backup, monitoring, spam-control, etc."

According to Gynn, the main benefits users get from open-source are the freedom and flexibility to control their own systems. This means users can fix problems quickly, determine upgrade cycles, make smarter deployment decisions and more easily integrate their systems with open source as the common platform. Companies that use open-source programs can customize the software to fit theirs needs rather than "force-fitting" into an off-the-shelf product.

But the trade-off for this increased control is increased responsibility for IT staff and systems engineers.

Open source can yield "more features and more rapid innovation versus commercial products and the typical commercial product enhancement schedules. But if customers use 100% open source, they must determine if they have the in-house skills and persistence to self-sustain the solution over the time horizon/life cycle of the project," says David Link, CEO and founder of ScienceLogic. His company sells systems and network management appliances that are based on proprietary code.

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