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4 reasons companies say yes to open source

By Howard Baldwin
January 6, 2014 06:30 AM ET

Forrester analyst Hammond confirms that open source's speed advantage is making it more popular in enterprise IT development. "If you ask a developer how they're going to handle a specific project, they can respond that they don't have to buy specialized hardware, because they can run it on Linux. They can use an open-source development framework, and they can develop what someone needs specifically."

Open source also brings a lot of "elasticity" to the process of spinning up new resources, Hammond says. "You don't have to ask 'Do I have a license?' or 'Do I have to buy more software?'" he says. That's why there's a high correlation between cloud-based and open-source software, he points out -- both provide a scalability and flexibility that companies haven't had in the past.

Open source mitigates business risk

Another, perhaps unsung, benefit to using open-source tools, and thereby reducing dependence on a single or multiple vendors, is that the open-source option may reduce business risk. Milinkovich notes that when the company developing TOPCASED, a development tool for embedded systems, was acquired, "the developer stopped working on it." So the companies that used it and loved it, notably Airbus, banded together to fund other developers to continue supporting it.

Vendors come and go, and commercial priorities change, whereas a community's focus is more constant. "The openness and transparency of open source mitigates a lot of risk," says Milinkovich. "Whether a company is big or small, it'll stop developing code if it's no longer commercially viable, and you no longer have access to the source code and repositories. If you can actually get a vibrant community built up around your code, it's much more resilient than a strictly commercial enterprise."

Gerald Pfeiffer, director of product management for Nuremberg-based SUSE, which offers enterprise Linux, believes that open source is thriving for all these reasons.

"People are reaping cost benefits by using open source, but that's not the No. 1 priority. It's also the avoidance of lock-in, the ability to customize, the ability to have a better feel of what you're paying for. It's the combination of all that," Pfeiffer says. "You're sharing development costs with other people, so you get more diversity and more independence than from a single vendor."

Open source bails out small business

At Development Is Child's Play, a Cupertino, Calif.-based children's occupational therapy practice, owner Teri Wiss had been looking for several years for an application that would handle scheduling and billing for her business.

She used Google Calendar so that if one parent cancelled an appointment, other parents could quickly see newly available slots -- but she also had to synchronize that calendar with a paper-based calendar that the therapists used. For the sake of efficiency and accuracy, she needed an electronic application.

She investigated options that addressed billing but not scheduling, accommodated sole practitioners instead of multiple practitioners, or focused on tracking medical issues not germane to occupational therapy. Some software was customizable but not user-friendly. Wiss marveled that, even in the midst of Silicon Valley, "I couldn't find something I liked at a price I could afford."

Finally, Wiss was introduced to Ron Pitt, a Poway, Calif.-based consultant. He understood her frustration. "When you have a small business like hers, it's hard to commit to thousands of dollars upfront and then monthly when your income fluctuates," says Pitt. He agreed to custom-build an application for Wiss using Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP, and the NetBeans IDE. The cost: $5,000 plus a few hundred dollars for hosting and backup each month, about the same as an annual fee for a SaaS application.

Pitt retains the rights to the code so he can create another application for another occupational therapist if he wants. He says he was able to charge just $5,000 because the code is "free, modular and the tools are robust. It's good, solid software engineering."

Frequent contributor Howard Baldwin last wrote for Computerworld about how to get a job in financial IT.

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