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Monday May 14 11:15 AM EDT Open Source Code: A Corporate Building Block

Open Source Code: A Corporate Building Block

By Charles Babcock, Interactive Week

It started as a small rebellion - a warning shot fired at the Windows monopoly by independent-minded programmers. But the open source movement traditionally associated with the happy penguin and the pierced, tattooed crowd is increasingly moving into the enterprise, mingling peacefully with commercial and proprietary code.

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Sure, plenty of reservations linger. With one or two exceptions, open source code continues to be held at arm's length by information technology (IT) managers who believe it's fine on their Web or domain name servers, but they don't let it get too much of a foot in the corporate door.

After all, they ask, if it's developed on a volunteer basis, it's free and support depends on an appeal to an invisible crowd, then how can it be any good?

But more and more enterprises are proving that it is just as good as, or better than, commercial code. And that despite the traditions and culture clashes between the open source community and commercial enterprise, there's an increasing need for merging the best of both worlds and running a mix of the two.

If there is any doubt that a new era is emerging in which open source and commercial code operate together in the enterprise, one need only look to the defensive speech from Microsoft this month in which Craig Mundie, senior vice president of consumer strategy, attacked the open source movement for threatening intellectual property, while acknowledging the company is feeling increased pressure from the freely shared alternatives to its products.

The alternatives are certainly cropping up in more places - in companies and government agencies of all sizes.

Take NASA, for example. Although much of the space agency continues to use commercial databases, its bid soliciting process rests atop open source code. That open source code also hosts its Financial and Contractual Status system for reporting contracts to Congress and the public.

"We transitioned to MySQL [from a major commercial database system] in November. We don't use stored procedures. We don't need triggers," said John Sudderth, senior computer scientist at Computer Sciences Corp. (NYSE:CSC - news), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration contractor that managed the migration.

HomeGain.com, a 2-year-old online service that matches home buyers and sellers, has taken the other route, building much of the base of its business on open source. It uses a combination of the Apache Web Server, FastCGI scripting language, the Linux operating system (OS) and the Zope application server - all open source - to power its Web operations.

"Open source communities are great. Newsgroups are great for support," said Georgianne Rogers, vice president of product development and engineering at HomeGain. Still, at the end of the day, she said, "you're on your own," which is why HomeGain also uses the Oracle database system. "We have the opportunity to move to an open source database, but choose not to," she added. "Our database is the Holy Grail of our business."

Entering the Mainstream

Once restricted to the public internet and selected outposts of the corporation, such as Web servers, proxy servers and caching servers, open source code is starting to supply additional building blocks for inside the company, such as databases, application servers and the Samba file and print server integration.

The established open source code products, such as the Apache Web server, the Linux OS, the World Wide Web's HTML and HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), and the scripting languages Perl and Python, formed a phalanx at the boundary, pointed at the heart of the corporation and ready to move in. Additional open source development in the form of the InterBase, MySQL and PostgreSQL databases, the Enhydra, Tomcat and Zope application servers, and the Samba file integration system are providing drive for deeper penetration.

"The pierced, tattoo[ed] crowd has been a little bit taboo to the buttoned-down IT manager. Now the open source tools have gotten so powerful, they have spilled over into traditional IT," said Darin Andersen, president of Ready Set Net, a Web site building firm that frequently uses open source code.

Despite questions and reservations, IT departments have recognized the ecumenical nature of open source code and have turned to it for both low-cost pilot projects and production systems.

"Apache, the Perl, Python and [HyperText Preprocessor (PHP)] scripting languages . . . open source is an ideal way to plug things together," said Brian Behlendorf, president of the Apache Software Foundation and chief technology officer at CollabNet. The company sells open source development methodologies and tools to private companies.

Behlendorf disputes the assumption there is a split between long-haired, Jolt Cola-drinking, iconoclastic open source developers and their counterparts inside companies. On the contrary, most open source programmers "are professional programmers inside of companies." They become open source programmers because they need to find collaborators to help them innovate the next thing they need in their jobs. Behlendorf and others went to work on Apache because there was no commercial equivalent when he was a Web site developer at Wired.

"Open source developers realize they live in a complicated world. If they didn't, the number of people who could potentially use their code would be much smaller," Behlendorf added. So they developed the Net's infrastructure - Berkeley Internet Name Domain, HTML, HTTP, Sendmail - and they continue adding building blocks, by following existing standards and agreeing on new ones, Behlendorf said. The result is code that works inside the corporation with a variety of commercial code, like how it works on the Net.

And that code, he insisted, is not a cheap substitute for commercial products, but the best code that is likely to be produced to do the job. That's because "it's the nature of the open source environment that you are going to be challenged and you have to defend your work. It's a meritocracy. The people who can't hack that get weeded out."

Internet Shows Value of Open Source

Whatever the reasons, executives and it managers moving their business to the Internet have been among the most enthusiastic fans of open source code.

As it built its Web site, airfreight handler Nordisk Aviation Products USA switched from Microsoft's Web server, Internet Information Server (IIS), Microsoft Active Server Pages (ASP) and Microsoft's SQL Server database to a set of open source alternatives when its Windows-oriented contractor moved on to another job.

"We got a little burned sticking with traditional technologies," recalled Manfred Gollent, Nordisk'spresident. When the original site developer changed jobs, "he disappeared from the surface of the earth," as far as Nordisk could tell.

Nordisk was left with a set of binary code - ones and zeros - Microsoft products and custom applications. It was hard for other programmers "to get into the code and see what was being done," Gollent said. He ordered the site rebuilt so that his company could own the source code. Its new contractor, Andersen's Ready Set Net, turned to the open source database system PostgreSQL to replace SQL Server; the open source scripting language PHP to replace ASP; and the Apache Web Server to replace IIS. Instead of its Windows NT servers, it started running its Web site on Linux servers.

"We've found the open source runs better on the Web than the proprietary code," Andersen said. The Linux servers experience fewer outages than the Windows NT servers they replaced, and the other software runs on top of them without failures, he said.

Like many companies, however, Nordisk worried about open source code's security and technical support. It ended up using commercial versions of both Apache and PostgreSQL: Red Hat's Apache Stronghold and Great Bridge's PostgreSQL, which are built with more security provisions. "Great Bridge is an enterprise database that can handle millions of transactions, and it comes with good support," Andersen said.

In Eugene, Ore., a 15-year-old bicycle manufacturer, Bike Friday, ran into trouble getting its Microsoft Access database systems to scale up to its business needs. Instead of migrating to SQL Server and becoming dependent on proprietary Microsoft products, it decided to base its business on open source code.

The company turned to PostgreSQL, said Michael Calabrese, Bike Friday's manager of information systems. "Great Bridge's PostgreSQL seems a viable alternative to Oracle or Sybase. It does everything I need," he said. The new PostgreSQL systems will store data from manufacturing systems and accounting, as well as drive the Web site, he said.

The firm also relies on Apache, Linux and Perl. One reason it can is because Eugene is a state university town, and technical skills in open source code are more readily available than they used to be, he said. "When I first started looking at PostGreS, people were lacking. But I can probably find them now at the university," Calabrese said. The Apache add-on scripting language, PHP, is still an exception, and he is the firm's only PHP programmer.

Some newer open source products are also becoming popular. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization uses one of those, Zope, for a tracking system that locates both NATO's and antagonists' troops, vehicles and ships around the world, said Tom Morling, vice president of marketing at Digital Creations, a systems consulting company and Zope's publisher. "The supreme commander of NATO has a Zope browser on his desk," he said.

Digital Creations counted 82,000 downloads of Zope from its site last year. Another open source code application server, Lutris Technologies, counted 160,000 Enhydra open source application server downloads last year, company officials said.

Competitors and Allies

Another reason open source code finds itself inside the corporation working with commercial code is the enthusiastic cooperation it is receiving from some of the largest software vendors. Companies that once saw free open source code as a threat now reach out to open source developers and cooperate with their projects, viewing them as valuable allies.

"IBM had a proprietary Web server [DominoGo] when we realized Apache had progressed to the point where it was going to dominate. It didn't make sense to try to compete with Apache," recalls Dan Frye, director of the Linux Technology Center at IBM, a virtual organization of Linux developers and support people inside the company. So IBM added Apache to its WebSphere application server and joined the Apache Software Foundation as a code contributor.

"We decided to cooperate on the Web server and compete at a level higher up the value chain," Frye said.

That was a major boost for Apache. "A lot of people noticed that Apache was good enough for IBM," said Jim Jagielski, an Apache developer and CTO at Zend Technologies, a company that supplies commercial PHP scripting language products.

Oracle likewise added Apache to its Oracle Application Server and ported the Oracle8i database system to the Linux OS, even though open source advocates say the database system is a future target for replacement by open source code. The open source code languages Perl, Python and Tool Command Language all include specific modules that provide connections to Oracle databases.

"We love open source, even open source databases," said Robert Shimp, senior director of product marketing at Oracle. By experimenting with free database systems, more users become familiar with the technology and potential Oracle customers, without becoming Microsoft customers first, he said.

So a powerful convergence of interests both inside and outside the enterprise is getting behind greater use of open source code inside the corporation's gates. With Enhydra, Perl, PHP, Zope and other open source projects building direct connections to Oracle, Enterprise Resource Planning systems and other commercial code, it appears likely that the coexistence is not just a passing fancy.

Open source code "is like lobster," said Jim Johnson, chairman of market researcher The Standish Group International. "Most people who haven't tried it don't like the way it looks. But those who try it, like it."

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