Linux, Apache, Enhydra: Can Open Source Move Up?

At the Crossroads 2001 conference for technical and business IT leaders, held in March, open-source software wasn't a high priority for critical business applications. Maybe it should be.

In a survey of conference attendees, 68% admitted to having open source software somewhere in the enterprise, and 42% said they have Linux. But most indicated that they weren't using these open-source tools to run any key business applications.

Lead by the Linux operating system and Apache Web server software, open source has quietly made its way into the enterprise. Brought there by summer interns and back-room technology experts, open-source software has proved its mettle as a Web server platform. But on the business side of the house, it seems open source still gets no respect. That's ironic, because the business benefits are compelling.

Established open-source products tend to be reliable because the code is subjected to a rigorous peer review. And the programming community that supports it often implements new features much more rapidly than do developers of commercial products. That could help companies as they struggle to keep Web-based applications current with rapidly changing business requirements -- an issue that Crossroads attendees identified as the challenge most likely to keep them up at night. Web developers can also create a best-of-breed Web architecture using a combination of open-source and commercial products. Finally, open source frees managers from the considerable expense and complexity of replicating and maintaining software licensing agreements.

Now, as the line between external-facing Web servers and internal line of business applications begins to blur, choosing the architecture on which to build the Web application infrastructure should again put the open-source question front and center. The decisions that IT practitioners make are likely to have a long-term impact. Companies are willing to spend. And vendors are certainly more than willing to take their money.

Take Web application servers, which provide a development environment for creating Web applications. Many companies are turning to products like IBM's WebSphere, BEA Systems Inc.'s Weblogic Server or Sun Microsystems Inc.'s iPlanet Application Server. These systems often sit atop of high-priced, proprietary operating systems and server hardware. And the Web application server software itself typically costs in the range of $7,500 to $30,000 per CPU -- or more.

Compare that with a system built with the three-tier open-source architecture of Linux, Apache and Enhydra, the open-source Web application server originally created by Lutris Technologies Inc. in Santa Cruz, Calif. With Enhydra, Web architects have a third leg on the open-source stool, a third building block upon which to build Web applications. The system can be deployed on systems ranging from relatively inexpensive rack-mounted Linux server hardware to IBM mainframes. And like Linux and Apache, Enhydra can be downloaded for free or for $995 per CPU if you want to buy the packaged version from Lutris. Enhydra's success has also been hindered by its lack of support for Java 2 Enterprise Edition application programming interfaces, but an Enhydra Enterprise version, now in beta, may overcome that hurdle.

One of the benefits of open source, says Percy Young, director of store systems at Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp. in Burlington, N.J., is that "development happens at Internet speed" because many people worldwide collaborate to solve problems and develop new features. Enhydra is a beneficiary of this trend. The Enhydra XML Compiler (XMLC), developed by Lutris and the open-source community, is a good example. XMLC addresses the issue of having to tweak applications to support every type of wireless device. Programmers can leverage it to create smart applications that recognize different types of mobile devices and automatically generate the appropriate code, whether Wireless Markup Language, compact HTML, raw HTML, voice XML, Flash or Java. "We didn't know anything about wireless," Lutris' Young says, adding that the company was "a bit scared" of adding the capability. But open-source programmers including DigitalSesame Inc. in Taiwan and Lutris added it "literally overnight." That wireless support is now part of Enhydra 3.5.

So why aren't more companies paying attention? Young says that with so much at stake, no one wants to be the first into the open-source pool. "What is holding open source back is a lack of big, well-known backers," he claims.

Nina Lytton, president of Boston-based research firm Open Systems Advisors Inc., which sponsors the Crossroads conference, isn't sure the option is even on many radar screens yet. "We are in the pre-FUD stages," she says. Many attendees seemed to share that sentiment. Larry Peterson, vice president of corporate technical services at Gelco Information Network in Eden Prairie, Minn., for example, just shrugged when asked whether he'd seriously considered open-source software for his Web infrastructure. His preference is to use best-of-breed products and stick with products from the "four horsemen" of the Web: "Sun, Cisco, Oracle and EMC," he says.

Others are cautious about the support issues. Some support is available through the online community, but those folks tend to be more involved in the development end of things. But organizations that need operational support can buy it along with packaged versions of open-source software. Still, Brian Gillam, director, practice management systems, at Chicago-based law firm Baker & McKenzie, says external support for open-source software is one thing, but he's not sure he can find people with the expertise in open-source software to support his operation internally. Gillam says he's wary of committing to open source "because of the labor requirements."

Burlington Coat Factory's Young has a different perspective. He says he found it easy to bring in interns with experience in open-source software. And when he had a problem with a printer that his staff couldn't solve, they sent an e-mail to the developer. He says the staff person had an answer back within 24 hours -- with a thank-you from the developer. "When was the last time you got a thank-you from Microsoft?" he says.

Another issue is that business managers equate cost with quality. And with the amounts of money large users are spending -- and vendors are commanding -- for Web infrastructure hardware and software, "there is a business precept that 'free' is too good to be true," Lytton says.

Ultimately, Lytton predicts, open source "will change the economics for the vendor community and the user community. It will accelerate businesses more away from software packages to service delivery. [Open source] reinforces the service model."

But that's not likely to happen any time soon. Today, open-source software remains just a small blip on the corporate radar, but one that IT managers would do well to investigate.

Would you use open-source software for your enterprise applications? Head to the Windows 2000 Forum to discuss the issues with your peers. (Note: Registration required to post message; anyone may read messages. To register on Computerworld's forums, click here).

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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