Field Notes: Clueless CIOs aside, open source is 'frightening and fantastic'

Savvy enterprises tap open source as a legacy-refresh strategy

field notes

SAN FRANCISCO -- Some companies are using open source to bring their legacy apps up to code, but all too many CIOs are still clueless about how often open source is being used in their own organizations.

One sign of how mainstream open source has become was noticeable in the music mix at this week's Open Business Conference in San Francisco's Palace Hotel. Ten years ago, Rage Against the Machine provided the background music. On Monday, mainstream pop artist Pharrell Williams' "Happy" was the morning anthem.

Western Union CTO Sanjay Saraf said during a panel discussion that rapidly changing customer demand is the biggest factor driving his company's increasing use of open source technologies. The goal is to allow new, primarily mobile apps to tap into the company's core systems.

"The next level of innovation comes from opening up legacy systems, rather than replacing them," Saraf said. "You're not doing a forklift switch. There's still massive business running on legacy systems."

Western Union's approach is to build APIs, then "let the legacy systems slowly degenerate." The company used this strategy to give system and data access to some 5,000 agents, who have in turn developed hundreds of mobile apps for different regional customers.

"To innovate faster, you have to use your partner community," Saraf said.

Computerworld's Tracy Mayor chats with National Correspondent Julia King from the Open Business Conference in San Francisco, where attendees discussed open source's growth in the enterprise despite CIO fears.

As die-hard proponents tell it, only the most progressive CIOs who truly "get" today's fast-changing business environment agree that open source development is the fastest track to innovation. But even after all these years, open source tools are still being smuggled into companies by developers who see this venue as an ally for getting their work done more quickly and under budget.

"CIOs are still the last to know about open source in the enterprise," said Matt Asay, vice president of business development and corporate strategy at MongoDB, an open-source database.

Asay cited results of a recent survey that asked CIOs how many open source projects they had going on in their enterprise. "They guessed 90 systems when actually the number was closer to 1,000," Asay noted. "All of this openness is happening without really being directed by the CIO, which is both frightening and fantastic because it's how open source rolls forward."

Despite most CIOs being in the dark, big-name enterprises are deploying more open source than ever before, plus contributing more generously to its development.

Electronics giant Samsung, for one, is aiming to substantially widen its footprint in the open source world. Last year, the company established an official open source innovation group to broaden adoption across the company plus drive the agenda in the broader open source community. The reason: "Open source is a faster path to innovation," said Ibrahim Haddad, who heads the group and presented at the conference.

"You force the business to differentiate at higher levels in the stack in more innovative ways," he said. "If you want to have a lot of value add, you need to be very competitive in the open source world."

To this end, Samsung has been steadily upping its contributions to the open software community as its use of the software has escalated. The company started using Linux in 2002 and by 2008, it had gone "full out," using open source to develop hundreds of products.

One telling statistic: In 2010, Samsung ranked No. 27 on the list of Linux contributors, Haddad said. By 2013, it had advanced that ranking to No. 7 -- and it is now No. 4.

Julia King is a Computerworld executive editor and national correspondent. You can contact her at

This article, Clueless CIOs aside, open source is 'frightening and fantastic', was originally published at

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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