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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It Takes a Village

For many open-source projects, the developer community is the lifeblood of the software, and those who are new to open source should know that these communities all operate differently.

The well-established Linux community, for example, has operated under founder Linus Torvalds' "benevolent dictatorship" since its inception. But developers of new projects often keep tight control of their communities as well.

WibiData, a Hadoop-based user analytics company that helps organizations build big data applications, provides part of its software stack as open source to make it easier for developers to build big data applications on an HBase NoSQL database.

"Right now, 99.5% of the software is written by our own team," says Aaron Kimball, chief architect at WibiData. "It takes a relatively long time to get people to use it, and for every 50 people who use it, one might start helping to contribute."

Then there are the radically democratic models. Developers who donate a product to the Apache Software Foundation, for instance, must reach a "lazy consensus" with the community, which means "you need some number of individuals to give your idea a thumbs-up and for nobody to give it an explicit thumbs-down -- and if they do, they are obligated to work with you to make the changes," Kimball says. "It's designed to slow things down in some ways so all users can be invested in this and through consensus arrive at the best solution." Although the developers who participate most actively in writing source code are expected to be the ones who are listened to first, he adds.

Is It Better to Give Than to Receive?

IT departments might think that when they buy into open source they also have to actively participate in the community to ensure its survival. But that's not always the case.

With widely used open-source products like Red Hat, "[vendors are] very much in control of the community," Nystrom says. And while they do take from the community, "they still control the product," he adds. "They're not dependent on the community for the product to be stable and go forward."

Sprint Nextel currently relies on Red Hat consultants as its liaison with the open-source community, but Krause believes the company will need less hand-holding as time goes by. "We will eventually move away from Red Hat being our support system and work directly with the open-source community," he says.

For users of smaller open-source libraries or projects, communities are much more important.

"There's just a group of people who put this together, and there might not be a commercial entity behind it," Nystrom says. In these cases, developers are expected to contribute, but what if they refuse?

One open-source user says it's hard to contribute, or "pay it back," when the product is industry-specific.

When Hallmark Services Corp. (HSC) in Naperville, Ill., was overhauling its back-end systems, it bought a license for the open-source code of Healthation, a commercial off-the-shelf system for administrating healthcare business transactions.

Taking an open-source approach reduced the amount of labor required to complete the project, enabling HSC to finish more than nine months early and save $4.8 million in labor costs, according to Neal Kaderabek, CIO and vice president of financial services. HSC is a co-developer of the software with Lisle, Ill.-based Healthation, and it has the right to exclusive use of functionality that it developed -- it doesn't have to make it available as open source.

"We rarely check anything back in -- we just take it out, modify it and make it unique to our business," Kaderabek says, adding that HSC shares less than half of what it develops with the community. "Frankly, we think that sets us apart from our competitors, so why would we want to let the world share it?"

He acknowledges that Healthation was disappointed that HSC wasn't contributing to its open-source community. "Their view was that's what makes their product more attractive to the industry. But in this case, I just felt like it was our secret sauce," he says.

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