Does the open-source development model work for business users?

Carefully choosing between community-supported and enterprise versions is key, they say

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Gautam Guliani, the executive director of software architecture at New York-based Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, a college entrance exam testing company, said he prefers to buy enterprise versions of all open-source applications used in mission-critical roles. Using community-based applications in pilot projects and noncritical business functions is acceptable, he said, but if his company wants to use it, it will pay for the enterprise version to get the support.

More road map direction

Kaplan uses a small assortment of open-source applications, including JBoss middleware, Red Hat Linux and Alfresco Web content management software. Getting adequate and timely support hasn't been a problem in general, Guliani said, but getting future road map direction from open-source vendors can be tougher than with proprietary vendors. "The development road map is not as thought out as much sometimes as we'd like with open-source companies," he said. "Some do it well, but for most there is room for improvement."

What open-source vendors offer to his business, he said, is lower costs for support, deepening maturity, code flexibility, "a much deeper level of transparency into the software products," and a higher rate of innovation.

"The releases tend to come more frequently" with open-source vendors, he said. "If they come too often, it can be a problem. At least if they're coming often, we can choose not to upgrade to a new release. Most open-source vendors have realized that if they bring out a new version, that they shouldn't drop support for the old one too fast."

What's happened, say analysts, is that open-source software has quietly become an integral part of corporate IT, whether through community-based or enterprise versions.

Raven Zachary, an analyst at The 451 Group in Portland, Ore., said companies don't even look at software as being open source or proprietary, but analyze it based on what will work best for them.

"I don't run into enterprises very often that would be willing to give up functionality," he said. "Enterprises are going to purchase technology that will allow them to do their jobs. Sometimes that means proprietary. Sometimes that means open source. Generally, large enterprises are going to make decisions about what is right for them regardless of whether it's open source or proprietary, based on value."

Donald DePalma, an analyst at Common Sense Advisory Inc. in Lowell, Mass., said business users with large data centers are typically using enterprise versions of open-source applications because of their mission-critical requirements. "Individual rogue business units are using community-supported versions," he said.

"There are levels of open source use," DePalma said. "MySQL is so widespread in use that it seems almost Oracle-like in its commercial viability, so users don't even see a distinction. I think we'll see more of this moving forward."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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