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Case Study: An open letter to the open source community

We need more from you, say IT managers

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Dear open source community,

We end users are happy with the way the open source movement is progressing. With Linux now a stable operating system worthy of mainstream deployments, we've begun looking up the stack to see where else open source can fit in our data centres.

The variety of open source offerings - from application servers and databases to security and content management - illustrate the community's commitment to meet business needs. We're ready to take the next step. But, first, there are a few things we'd like to see from you, the open source community, before free software takes on a higher profile in big IT departments:

More enterprise-class support
Open source projects might have been launched because of a desire to move away from proprietary vendors, but corporate users still want the kind of support those types of vendors provide. We think companies such as JBoss and Red Hat, which provide professional service and support for open source code, have the right approach.

"In terms of what the open source community has to do to get to the next level, it's what [JBoss calls] the professional open source model," says Daniel Brum, enterprise application architect at insurance firm Aviva Canada in Toronto. "Your tools and APIs are all open source, but at the same time you provide a corporate backing so we as end users get that comfort level that comes with 24/7 support and the knowledge that all the proper testing is going into these things and that the developers are actually paid to work on the tools."

Better documentation
It's true that third-party support options are growing, but we need to know that documentation is available as a frontline resource. It should be of high quality and easy to find. "We see some leading open source tools such as MySQL, PHP and Apache provide good documentation," says Ulrich Seif, CIO at National Semiconductor in Santa Clara. "This needs to be more widespread across all tools and utilities."

A sense of stability
We understand that creativity and freedom of expression are key drivers in open source software, but as IT managers responsible for running mission-critical data centers we want to know that today's hot project won't be thrown by the wayside tomorrow. "Programmers are creative people. Like artists who finish a painting, when we're done with a program and put it in production, we look for something else to do," says Joe Poole, technical director at Boscov's department stores in Reading, Pa. "I'm a little concerned that the maintainers of the open source products could lose interest and go on to something else. If the product is abandoned, who will make sure that some other group will take it over?" Poole suggests that the Open Source Development Lab or some other organization should monitor projects, "just to make sure that open source maintains stability."

Access to more platforms
As one IT architect at a large media company, who asked not to be named, put it: It's time for the open source community "to lose religion." We want to deploy open source software because it makes good business sense, not because it makes a political statement. "I don't want to buy software from a company who builds or supports software just because they hate Microsoft," he says. "And, frankly, we'd like to see more open source products for Windows that are more than just the Linux version recompiled, but truly Windows-centric open source tools."

One of the difficulties of bringing in open source is to integrate it with existing environments, so enabling open source tools to run on legacy platforms would be a definite plus. "Losing the religion and building true, robust integration with Windows and existing environments is what will get open source into the data centre," the IT architect says.

A commitment to stay open
As open source becomes more widely deployed, there might be the temptation to close some things off. We believe the community must work hard to keep free code standardized so that corporate users can balance application development with their existing infrastructures. "We need to see more focus on adopting open standards with respect to file formats and protocols to drive up adoption. . . . Open compilers, file formats, transport protocols, [operating systems], applications - the whole deal," Seif says. "The open source community must keep pursuing a commitment to open standards and create winning products like Apache that ensure open standards are not made proprietary."

A focus on the end user
Don't forget who we are and what we need. "When I've gone to meetings of open source developers and potential end customers, one of the things that struck me was that many of the open source developers are far more interested in talking with each other and working with each other than they are in dealing with actual potential customers," says Charlie Brenner, senior vice president of the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology, a unit of Fidelity Investments in Boston. "There is a lingering feeling in parts of the community that commercialisation isn't necessarily a good thing."


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