Sizing up open source: Not so simple

Open-source software throws a wrench into traditional software evaluation criteria. Here's what to look for and what you'll be expected to contribute.

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"There really was some trepidation there," Krause recalls. So the organization chose JBoss Enterprise Application Platform as its new middleware and Red Hat Enterprise Linux as its new operating system. It also used Red Hat's consulting team to help with implementation and let a Red Hat relationship manager serve as liaison with the open-source community.

"We're kind of dipping our toe into open source," Krause says. "We're still paying some maintenance for it, but it's significantly cheaper than what we were paying before."

When looking at open-source products like Red Hat, the selection criteria are no different from those that apply to commercial software, Nystrom says. "They're considered to be normal vendors with high-quality products that are comparatively cheap."

As open-source products gain traction at companies like Sprint Nextel, IT departments will feel more comfortable turning to smaller, open-source projects to foster innovation, Nystrom says. "If you're building something custom, it's typical that you use [open source] somewhere during development," he says. "It's almost impossible not to use it if you want to build a very modern application."

In such cases, Nystrom recommends a bottom-up approach for choosing open-source projects.

"Developers and architects know what the communities are like and which are the libraries that are in much use today," Nystrom says. "They have a clearer view of which library we should use for which purpose, or which version of some type of persistent API we should be using here, or what's the best log-in library. So you can narrow down the number of libraries that are relevant for the enterprise very quickly -- from hundreds of thousands to probably less than 100, depending on what you want to build." And from there it's a quick move to a few "usual suspects," he adds.

West Texas A&M chose the CAS project for its single sign-on system because CAS had been successfully deployed at Texas A&M University in College Station "and the references were solid," Webb says. His team also attended user events and higher-education conferences related to CAS as part of the decision-making process.

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