Open-source software in the data center

There is a place for it, but it won't do everything.

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The costs of 'free' software

"Open source means free as in freedom, not free as in cost, although it often is," says Dirk Morris, chief technology officer and founder of Untangle Inc., a San Mateo, Calif.-based open-source development company whose customers are small and midsize businesses.

However, notes Morris, even though users gain flexibility, reliability, security and ease of adoption with open source, these benefits are far from free. "Be aware that open-source products are often not a complete product offering." Also, the quality of open source varies widely, he says, so users must choose carefully.

"There is always a cost involved; either a support cost to the vendor or an internal cost of management," says Gartner's Kumar. He advises clients to review their portfolios and understand that some applications are better-suited for open source than others. There is a trend toward running more mainstream and transaction-intensive applications on open-source platforms, he says, and in this context, management tasks like virtualization will become a necessity.

Kumar recommends that clients determine the availability and manageability requirements of each application and then verify whether the open-source platform can and will work with their existing environment. And last, he says, you should determine the cost of the new open-source software and take a realistic view of what the cost differences will be from your existing environment.

In fact, cost is not the major factor at Opus. "We often look to open-source projects as a way to get our feet wet with a specific technology so we can see if a product type meets our needs and the needs of our clients without spending money on the corresponding commercial solutions," Sherwood says. Currently Opus is looking at open-source products for SAN functionality, network management and network control.

Open source is also a way to solve a problem, add a new service or perform some other function that has not yet been budgeted for, or "has not been proven as truly useful and worth pursuing," he says.

Because open-source projects, in general, "do not move forward at the pace of the commercial packages," Sherwood says, his company was looking at more development costs to add functionality or change open-source packages to meet its own needs. So one "hidden cost" of open source, he says, is what it takes internal developers or outside contractors to modify an open-source package. However, in some situations, "commercial offerings are far too costly or lack the necessary functionality required and, therefore, are not a good value. In these cases, open source may be a good solution."

Still, for the foreseeable future, most observers say that open-source will coexist with proprietary packages in the data center.

"As [open-source] packages become more reliable and feature-rich, their popularity will undoubtedly grow among businesses attracted to the relatively low cost of implementation," say EMA's Brasen. "It's unlikely, however, that open-source solutions will completely replace commercial products."

Sartain is a freelance writer from Utah with a background in computer science. She has written more than 500 articles and can be reached at

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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