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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That's not often the case, industry-watchers say. Most open-source applications are essentially commodities, and the platform itself doesn't usually hold many trade secrets.

HSC processes $3.5 billion worth of insurance premiums annually and provides services to about 1.5 million retail insurance members.

The company chose Healthation because it was the only healthcare transaction software Kaderabek knew of that was available as open source. With Healthation, HSC could kick-start its IT transformation project because the majority of new core functions were already in place and the IT team had to customize only about one-third of the system.

"This [open source] out of the gate was leaps and bounds ahead of the design and architecture" of traditional software systems, Kaderabek says. "It was built on latest and greatest technology; it used Web services; it was .Net using SQL server -- which all met our standards. We got more done in a shorter period of time and didn't have to add extra resources," he says.

Kaderabek says that even when evaluating small or industry-specific open-source projects, IT shops should look for vendors that specialize in maintaining an open-source offering. "Make sure there's somebody out there who can say, 'I've done this for the last five years, and I know people who have done what you're doing,' in case you need help," he says.

When It's OK to Give It Away

Contributions to an open-source community don't have to be huge to be valuable. "If there's a low-level feature that's a more convenient way to do something -- that saves everybody time," says WibiData's Kimball. "Sometimes even small changes that may not take more than an afternoon to write will have an outsized benefit on usability."

WibiData initially developed its entire software stack alone, but in September 2012 it decided to make part of that stack available as open source and released the Kiji project in November.

Offering some tools as open source benefits WibiData in several ways, most notably by broadening the company's user base, says Kimball. Fundamental layers of the stack have a low value, and users won't pay for tools that aren't unique to their business, especially if similar tools are available. Open-sourcing those layers introduces new users to other WibiData offerings. "There are plenty of people who can make use of these components who [weren't] customers or potential customers, but now they're using and testing the same software that our paying customers use," Kimball says. "So everybody enjoys increased reliability of the overall system by virtue of it being more widely adopted."

Moreover, open source provides a foot in the door to companies that might not be ready for a big-data tool yet. "If common-based layers of our overall system are widely available through open source, [developers] might just start using it. And later on, when their organization needs to get serious about using an open-source application, it's much easier for us to go in and sell to those business users because our software already runs on parts of their stack. Interoperating with it and getting it to work with the rest of our systems is much easier rather than if they had built this same system in a completely bespoke fashion."

Kiji has received only a few contributions from its developer community so far, but Kimball believes that will change. "For every 15 people who use it, one might file a bug report -- without providing a fix. But it's very early days," he says. "Where this goes is an open question."

The future of open source in general looks bright. Broader adoption will create larger communities for testing and feedback, which in turn will drive innovation in areas such as cloud computing, mobile and big data, according open-source vendors.

The innovation cycle is also creating new business models. "Open source is key to a company's ability to innovate and sustain innovation with financial benefits, interoperability and a supportive community," Webb says. "Those are the things that are going to keep it going."

Stacy Collett is a Computerworld contributing writer. You can contact her at

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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