Suits, geeks seek open-source entente

Can commercial firms tap into open source without offending 'hacker ethic'?

The O'Reilly Open Source Software Convention here has become the meeting place between the informality of geek culture and the buttoned-down business world.

For example, at this week's event, information technology vendors and user companies came to learn how to develop open-source projects without incurring the ire of the community. At the same time, open-source guru Eric Raymond explained how to talk about the free source-code market to business executives.

The term open source was created in 1998 by advocates who hoped it would be more palatable to commercial companies than the alarming term free software. In the past two years, commercial vendors have embraced open source for selected products. The latest is Sun Microsystems Inc., which last week released the code to StarOffice (see story).

An emerging entente between commercial principles and the "hacker ethic" was evident at the show. "There are lots of ways to address open source," said Russell Pavlicek, a technical consultant for Linux technologies at Compaq Computer Corp. Pavlicek said vendors shouldn't necessarily publish all their source code - "though [Free Software Foundation President] Richard Stallman would like you to."

Brian Behlendorf, a founding member of the Apache Web server project, said he believes the methodologies and freely available tools of the open-source community can benefit corporate IT departments - regardless of whether these IT groups decide to contribute to the open-source community themselves. It's a conviction he's putting into practice with his new company, San Francisco-based CollabNet Inc., which helps commercial businesses hook up with open-source developers.

"What we try to do is model what goes on in the Internet inside one company," said Behlendorf. That includes "helping engineers think like open-source developers," he added.

One of the things corporate IT departments can learn is the value of peer review, where anyone interested in doing so gets to see and criticize code. This creates rapid feedback loops, according to Behlendorf.

Holy Grail of Reuse

Using free, open-source components "is the Holy Grail of software reuse," said Behlendorf. A possible downside: "You have to realize that the concept of schedules and delivery dates has to be more flexible," he said.

But IT skepticism remains strong. Brent Michalski, a senior software engineer at MasterCard International Inc. in St. Louis, Mo., uses open-source technologies like Perl and Apache for development purposes. But "when we go into production, they want to use Microsoft or Netscape," he said.

Some of the hackers, in contrast, are uncomfortable with "the suits moving in," said show organizer Tim O'Reilly. Hard-core hackers will move out of the mainstream open-source projects, he predicted. "They will be doing the really cool stuff that we will be hearing about in 10 or 15 years," he said.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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