Open Source's Appeal Is Spreading

August 13, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Once reserved primarily for use only by college students and hobbyists, open source software is fast gaining market share within mainstream business.

"It's available, it's manipulative, you can make enhancements to it," explained Paul Klimas, director of the city of Grand Rapids' Geographic Information System (GIS). "In some cases it's more reliable because of that flexibility."

While the city's GIS was developed partly with open source applications, a number of the systems within city hall, including Internet, are run with Linux, the Unix-like operating system that has become the poster child of the open source movement.

Also referred to as "freeware" or "shareware," open source refers to software packages that are delivered with a readable version of the source code. In proprietary software, the applications are delivered in binary code unreadable to the user, protecting the company's patents and products but limiting modification.

With the original source code, the software is not unlike a custom hot rod: With the proper knowledge, parts can be traded out, upgraded or customized to fit a user's needs and desires.

Structure Interactive is using open source software as part of a large content management system it is developing for a local company, its third open source project in the past year.

"We're seeing a swell of interest in it," said Charlie McGrath, SI's director of creative services.

"We were a little leery of open source at first. I think most people don't see the distinction between something for corporate use and amateur work.

"But now the lines are drawn," he said. "Some of the open source work is so polished, and there are teams of professionals working to develop it."

The primary draw for open source software that SI has seen is relatively easy to explain.

It's free.

Although the costs of developing software have dropped significantly in recent years as development tools have become more sophisticated, licensing an industrial-strength management system from a name-brand vendor still costs six figures.

Before development, implementation, training or even hardware purchasing, a company may pay $100,000 to $250,000 for the software alone.

"That's a very expensive proposition," McGrath said. "Sure, it's very good software with very good support, but even a big company may not want to pay $100,000 on content management before you even deal with anything."

With the established players asking top dollar, implementing a system from a starting point of zero is an attractive proposition. However, the costs of development, implementation, training and hardware are still present.

Adam Williams, systems administrator for Morrison Industries, said most people don't realize that "in the software world, almost no one makes money selling software. Even the big software shops don't make money selling software.

"You make money by supporting software."

Williams manages Morrison's network with Linux as the primary operating system, and is a member of a West Michigan Linux-users group.

"But most open source software is actually developed by people who are paid to write it," he said. "The common misconception is that it is all done by college students and such."

Sure enough, the ideology not only attracts thrift-minded software engineers looking for their industry's Napster — although there are several such sites. Open source has been growing in brand name support as well.

Oracle, Novell, Apple and Hewlett Packard all have significant open source investments, with Hewlett Packard currently shipping laptops that operate on Linux. IBM made news last month when it donated its Cloudscape software to open source group Apache — more than a half million lines of code valued at $85 million.

The attraction for these companies, whether through hardware or service, is no different from that of local providers.

"We're charging large amounts of money to take this free stuff, customize it, configure it for them and turn it over like a shrink-wrapped product," McGrath said.

"But the end result is that they are still paying a lot less."

Not long ago, the hobbyist movement changed into a business. In essence, the new engine for your garage monster is free, and yes, you can come pick it up whenever you want. But do you know how to put it in?

Of course, there are people who possess those skill sets, but for those who don't, there are companies more than happy to help out.

Major companies like RedHat and MySQL generate revenue through support while acting as vendors of the free software. These and similar companies run project teams that manage a head version of the software which accumulates modifications that users make. These modifications are applied to the head, which is eventually released as an updated version.

Actually, the premise that there's no money to be made from software is arguable. And chief among those making such an argument is Linux' primary competition and the reason many companies have jumped on the open source bandwagon: Bill Gates and Microsoft.

Andy Catlin — former principal of New York-based Microsoft Gold Partner Citigate Hudson, and now principal of Ottawa Interactive — believes that open source competition will force Microsoft to produce simpler and cheaper software that will be more accessible to smaller business.

But another Microsoft Gold Partner SageStone Inc. doesn't appear to be worried.

"I don't have a technology bias because you can construct programs from a variety of techniques," SageStone CEO Keith Brophy explained.

"The huge thing with our clients is always return on investment. They want to build a system cost effectively and then they want to be able to measure a return on their investment and a yield for their organization."

Brophy worked with open source while an engineer in the integration division at IBM in the 1980s, but he later chose Microsoft instead.

According to Brophy, with factors such as support and administration, the number of programmers needed to maintain the system, reliability, and the cost of a system failure or repeated failures, Microsoft will come out substantially ahead.

"It you want to attain it with no upfront cost, it can be attractive," he explained. "But it's kind of a fool's gold … you get passionate arguments on both camps, a lot of strong feelings that approach religious fervor. We try to approach it with just black and white dollar numbers, and that's where Microsoft technology really prevails."

Microsoft's research and development budget dwarfs those of its competitors, Brophy added, so it is almost certain that it will always produce the most powerful, innovative and effective applications.

"Well, you can't get fired for buying Microsoft," McGrath added.

"There are risks involved (with open source). But another huge selling point is that companies with active IT groups can continue to fiddle with it. If you don't like something, you can change it. That's an exciting thing for these companies, to have something almost 90 percent developed, then to be able to customize it and make it like something you built from scratch."

"If you have an extremely large technical staff that you want to keep busy," Brophy said, "then it will give you something to keep them busy with."

Another argument against Microsoft besides its proprietary nature, is the concern over how secure its products actually are. In the past year, a number of security weaknesses have been revealed in Windows operating systems.

In fact, according to the Silicon Valley Business Journal, the latest Windows update will attempt to seal such a large number of holes that it could render useless many applications.

"Predominantly, Windows is bombarded with viruses and hackers," Klimas said. "We believe Linux is a more secure environment. We get more flexibility in security measures that we can put on top of Linux then we can on Windows, and the Windows patches add an awful lot of administration costs to the city to keep constantly upgrading our operating systems."

Grand RapidsCommunity College is another local institution that has embraced open source, not only in the use of Linux operating systems, MySQL, PHP, Apache and Perl, but in its curriculum as well.

"We do teach vendor-specific classes," said Szymon Machajewski, GRCC information software analyst and instructor. "But we have also begun to teach the open source type software as well," added Machajewski, also a member of a Linux-users group. "And when it comes to the server side, it is much cheaper for a student to use software at home, because you can take it home and use it for free."

The retooled Internet Development Program is offering classes on Unix administration using RedHat Linux, and one class each on Web databases and Web server security, introducing students to MySQL, PHP and Apache.  

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