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Deliver the Goods

By Frank Hayes
August 8, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The biggest idea at last week's O'Reilly Open Source Convention didn't have anything to do with open-source software. At least, not particularly with open-source. The idea is this: You drive costs out of IT by identifying commodity functions and doing them more cheaply, while you gain business advantage with IT by identifying unique ways you can assemble IT components to let users do things your company's competitors can't.
Get it? Then you're smarter than me. I had to hear different angles
on this idea from a half-dozen people before I realized they were all actually talking about the same thing.
And it's really not an open-source idea. Sure, you can decide to perform a commodity function with open-source software -- say, Linux or Apache or MySQL -- if that's cheaper than whatever you've been using. But instead, you might use a less-expensive proprietary software product. Or you might outsource the function. Or refactor a process to make it cheaper without changing the technology behind it.
That's the competition that open-source software is facing. And open-source people have figured it out. Oh, not all of them -- there are plenty of code jockeys around who'll never care about anything at a higher level than queue optimization or race-condition resolution.
But companies like SourceLabs and SpikeSource understand that they can drive cost and risk out of open-source "stacks" -- collections of software that perform standard functions. No more endless some-assembly-required fiddling to figure out what works together when all you want to do is some commodity IT function. Commodities shouldn't be hard or expensive, because they offer no business advantage except saving money. Yes, open-source people have figured out the virtue in being cheap and easy.
Cutting costs is only half the idea, though. The other half is gaining competitive advantage. Businesses do that when they have something their competitors don't. That won't be something they can buy off the shelf -- their competitors can all buy the same stuff. And that something can't come from using industry best practices, because everyone else can follow the same recipes.
Once, IT would have looked for unique advantage by writing big custom applications. But today that takes too long and is too inflexible.
Instead, open-source-using companies like Google and Yahoo have figured out that their secret sauce is in the way they put together pieces of IT -- software, hardware, networks and practices. Anyone can acquire the gear these companies use. How they put it together is the difference.
And why they put it together that way is the advantage. A clever architecture



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