Open Source Unchecked


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As open-source use runs rampant, IT must get a grip on governance and figure out if it's really saving money.

In 2006, a branch of the U.S. Armed Services wanted to know just how prevalent open-source software had become in its IT ranks.

The IT staffers knew that Linux and a few other open-source infrastructure apps were being used in "a couple of divisions," but they wanted to get a full understanding of that usage and then estimate the ROI to determine whether open source should be rolled out to other divisions. Consultants from Olliance Group took a look at the service's operations and after three days came back with some shocking news: The military branch was already using Linux and other open-source applications in 75% of its divisions, and in half of those, open-source use had already reached mission-critical status.

Though the open-source train had left the station without IT management onboard, the consulting firm was able to determine that the various divisions using open source were seeing an ROI of 300% to 700%. But the military branch still had no governance plan over the use of open-source technology. Needless to say, "they have one now," says Andrew Aitken, a senior vice president at Palo Alto, Calif.-based Olliance, which was acquired by Black Duck Software in 2010.

But others say companies can't be sure they're creating business value without running the numbers first, and having a governance plan is one of the best ways to get a grip on open-source costs -- and keep the company from unwittingly getting tied up in legal battles over the use of proprietary software.

Hidden Costs, Hidden Value

Governance Required

Why is governance so important? Ask Barnes & Noble. In March, B&N got caught in a patent infringement suit between Microsoft and the developers of Android. Microsoft filed suit against Barnes & Noble, claiming that B&N's Nook Color Tablet device and Nook e-reader contained Microsoft intellectual property found in the Android open-source mobile operating system.

Governance means different things to different open-source users. Walli puts open-source players into three categories: those who buy it, those who use it and those who make it. "Once you identify which bucket [you're in], it allows you to build a governance process that really speaks to those three different functions," he says.

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