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Open Source Solutions: Seek Value Beyond Cost

Freedom is key

In the early days the sheer novelty of open source software being free had a certain allure. But actually using it meant dealing with myriad technical and support issues - more than enough to make the price tag of commercial enterprise software worthwhile. Fortunately, that's changed.

The last few years have seen much of the open source software portfolio become mature enough not only to compete with commercial packages, but, increasingly, to exceed them in both functionality and reliability. This opens a new field of potential customer value and opportunity.

But while the technical foundation of open source solutions may be robust enough for this kind of exploration, the question is whether enterprise IT managers are really ready to commit. For the most part they are, according to a study that Unisys commissioned from Forrester Consulting.

The study's objective was to examine enterprise IT decision makers' evolving buying habits regarding open source as well as how the software is being used in those organizations today. Opinions were derived from interviews with 486 European and U.S. IT buyers and senior open source decision makers defined as having purchasing power and budget-setting responsibilities.

Freedom, Not Cost, Is Key
Overall, Forrester's research clearly showed that enterprise open source adoption is steadily increasing, with many businesses showing no marked difference in their purchasing attitudes between open source and commercial platforms. But while the increasing popularity of open source software was encouraging from a systems integration standpoint, the more surprising result was why that popularity was increasing. We initially assumed the obvious answer was cost. But, in actuality, that's not the case.

True, licenses for open source software can be had for a fraction of their commercial counterparts or nothing at all, but the total cost of ownership (TCO) for those licenses is far from free. Support costs and staff expertise are still pricier than commercial packages - mainly because they're harder to find.

No, what's really driving the adoption of open source software is freedom.

Almost half of all respondents interviewed in the Forrester study cited open standards, a lack of usage restrictions, and not being locked into a single software vendor as their primary reasons for looking at or adopting open source solutions. Lower initial purchase cost was cited as important by most interviewees, but just as important is the ability to customize these packages to specific business uses - especially in vertical markets. And although most noted that they won't really change the code, having that option is very valuable to them. Freedom is key.

This relates directly to how open source software is being used - mainly for infrastructure apps and as back-end components for user-popular applications, but with rapidly increasing interaction with end users. About 80% of interviewees were already using open source software in mission-critical infrastructure, including application, Web, e-mail servers, and the like. More than 50% were also extending this to network infrastructure, including homegrown routers, storage repositories, and firewalls.

In those instances, the freedom that open source offers is undeniable. Take a Web application platform from a commercial vendor, for example. An application platform typically requires additional server components - database, reporting engine, and application server, among other things. The pressure to buy these components from the original software vendor is usually too great to ignore, both from a feature and pricing perspective.

By using open source alternatives, clever IT managers not only garner price savings, but also leave their door open to upgrades as additional alternatives arrive on the market. And they give themselves a way to customize their applications to a degree not usually possible with commercial applications - although custom software engineering costs in that scenario aren't insignificant.

Enterprise Decision Makers Perceive Significant Benefits
That's not to say that IT managers are interested in open source solely as a way to keep their options open. The ability to purchase software cheaply, swap, and maximize component use, and freely move to alternate platforms also confers a usually elusive advantage: efficiency. More than 75% of the interview respondents cited efficiency and consolidation as primary drivers of their open source use - both for application platforms and network infrastructure.

A similar number of respondents specifically mentioned open source as critical to the emerging Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), where applications up and down the business line are required to interact with each other and provide services for new business scenarios as nimbly as possible. In fact, driving interoperability standards across open solutions is one of the key tenets of the recently founded Open Solutions Alliance (OSA).

In general, IT managers have changed their minds about key aspects of open source software since its earlier days. In those times, IT managers were concerned about open source software quality; they often considered decentralized development and hyper-fast software releases signs of unstable software. Today, those opinions have turned around 180 degrees - though probably mostly for those open source applications that have been around for a while and have developed some industry trust.

Still, significant numbers of respondents in the Forrester study specifically cited more secure development practices and higher-quality software code as key reasons for considering open source over commercial apps. And those are general opinions across all market segments.

But open source also has specific benefits when used in certain vertical industry sectors, especially in product development scenarios. Here, lower overall operating costs, faster time to market, and driving new market offerings were important to respondents. Those not involved in building products with open source components still answered the same way, citing new business practices and the re-engineering of core business practices as big reasons for looking at open source solutions.

An Expert Solution Partner Unlocks Optimal Value
So if the benefits of open source software fit your organization's requirements, the question becomes how to buy. The days of downloading large packages from Sourceforge and modifying source code yourself are over. Enterprise buyers today are not only happy to pay comparatively economical support costs instead of large end-user license fees - they actually insist on it. Corporate buyers want a service arm, and if it's for an open source platform purchase, they want specific expertise in that area.

In fact, respondents to the Forrester study indicated that they seek expert partners with extensive capabilities. In enunciating key selection criteria for open source partners, more than 80% of the respondents clearly stated that they looked for open source expertise, overall cost considerations (from an entire solution perspective, not just one software package), and integration skills with existing enterprise applications. Related selection considerations were open source software maintenance, full lifecycle support (for the solution, not merely the package), integration of multiple open source applications, and project consulting.

Specific requirements such as global support coverage and packaged or bundled offerings also figured highly for those companies that needed them, as did integration of open source and specific closed source commercial applications - and even some form of certification for popular open source software stacks.

That range of services is most likely to be available from a larger systems integrator with significant proficiency in delivering comprehensive enterprise solutions, rather than from smaller providers lacking the capabilities and credentials to provide extensive services.

Clearly, enterprise IT decision makers are gaining confidence in the value of open source software for mission-critical IT applications and infrastructure. At the same time, they see equal value in engaging an expert services and solutions partner to help them convert lower cost into optimal return on investment and the greatest value to their business.

In that case, it's incumbent on systems integrators to incorporate a greater number of services-driven open source solutions into their portfolios to help clients realize that business value.

More than anything else, Forrester's research shows that IT executives now view enterprise open source solutions as a game where everybody can win.

End note: Though our team at Unisys was involved in shaping the areas of inquiry for the Forrester study, none of the respondents knew about Unisys' involvement and only those companies with either an open source installed base or those who had already evaluated open source software for purchase were surveyed.

More Stories By Anthony Gold

Anthony Gold is vice president and general manager, Open Source Business, Unisys Corporation. He is also a board member on the Open Solutions Alliance (OSA). He serves as a business consultant for several startups in the Philadelphia region and is writing a book on how businesses can transform themselves leveraging open standards and services-oriented architectures. Anthony graduated from Drexel University with a bachelor of science in electrical engineering.

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