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Analysis: Open-source application stacks -- heavy on the hype?

Critics say they're a marketing-driven creation that do little for enterprises

By Eric Lai
November 14, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Open-source application stacks -- and the scramble to build, support and sell them to enterprise IT customers -- have been one of the technology industry's hottest trends this year.

Vendors hawking them include the likes of Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM, Linux purveyors Red Hat Inc. and Novell Inc., and independent support providers such as SpikeSource Inc., OpenLogic Inc., SourceLabs Inc. and many others.

Yet a growing number of critics say that stacks has already become a hyped-up buzzword that fails to serve many users.

"Stacks are rigid and deterministic," said Winston Damarillo, CEO of Simula Labs Inc., a Marina Del Rey, Calif., open-source software provider. They are "prefab solutions, which most customers don't really want in the first place."

Take Davis Tharayil, CIO at Home Insurance Co., for example. Tharayil is looking for a cheaper alternative to the Oracle databases on Solaris servers the in-liquidation insurer runs now. Tharayil is testing a custom server appliance built by rPath Inc. with the open-source Ingres database running on a stripped-down version of Linux. Even though Tharayil was looking for a plug-and-play product, at no point did he consider a precertified open-source application stack.

"A full stack just wasn't necessary," Tharayil said. Besides, he added, "I've been in the business for 35 years. Every time something new comes along, they say it's a silver bullet. And I still haven't found one."

Application stacks have a long history in the proprietary software arena. Vendors such as Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp. have long marketed their integrated product line to customers as a way to boost interoperability and cut costs, though critics say that also leads to customers facing vendor lock-in.

In open source, most software providers remain small, offering at most a handful of applications rather than entire lineups. That put the responsibility on corporate users, or their highly paid consultants, to ensure that the software worked together -- something that could easily wipe out the savings from using free software.

The first true open-source stack emerged during the dot-com boom in the form of Web servers. Dubbed LAMP, it included the Linux operating system with the Apache HTTP Web server and MySQL database on top, supported by code written in languages such as Perl, Python or PHP. LAMP's popularity woke up vendors to the potential of packaging and testing open-source applications in a tidy way, cutting deployment time and risks for companies, especially smaller ones.

That has led to the emergence of dozens of LAMP imitators, as well as open-source software stacks running on Windows, dubbed WAMP. Critics call it a flood of poorly tested, not-very-well-integrated stacks.

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