Open Source Software: Meaningful Competition?

Over the last few months, open source software such as the Linux operating system and the Apache Web server have gained acceptance as viable alternatives to commercial products, and attracted a growing number of developers. Oracle Corp., Informix Software Inc., Netscape Communications Corp., Computer Associates Inc., Intel Corp. and Dell have all announced support for Linux, and IBM Corp. has adopted Apache as one of its Web server platforms. Intel and Netscape recently invested in Red Hat Software, the leading provider of commercial Linux. And some have gone on to really drink the Kool Aid: Netscape released the source for Navigator, and Sun has opened the Solaris source code.

For managers running NT, open source poses a number of questions. Is it real? Can it offer any meaningful benefits? Is it supported, or is it wishful thinking on the part of Microsoft's competitors?

The buzz about open source is coming from the perception that Linux is providing Microsoft with some new competition. Linux is installed on an estimated 7 million machines worldwide, and has been ported to a wide variety of computer environments, from Intel PCs, to Apple Macintoshes, to Sun SPARC and Compaq Alpha workstations. Linux has also been adopted into some huge corporate environments, such as Wells Fargo, Cisco and Boeing, and in government offices such as the U.S. Postal Service.

Apache has grown to dominate a market targeted by Microsoft, Netscape, Oracle and Sun. A loosely organized collection of independent developers, with no funds, no marketing machinery, no installed base of customers, and no paid programmers, has managed to outperform the most sophisticated companies in the computer industry, not only writing better code, but capturing an ever-growing share of the market. Industry experts often make note just how amazing that accomplishment really is.

Open source development is a worldwide, collaborative effort. Everyone who wants to can contribute code, and read the code provided by others. It puts the "science" back into computer science; results are shared and peer reviewed.

"If you are a civil engineer with plans for a nuclear reactor, there is no way concrete gets poured until your plans are reviewed by other engineers who weren't part of the design team," says Eric S. Raymond, author of "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," an influential paper on open source development. "The same solution that works in other branches of engineering -- peer review -- works for software too: Where there is no peer review for source code, software reliability is really bad; where we do have peer review for source code, software reliability is really good."

Open source has been a critical component of Internet infrastructure for years. Sendmail, which handles 75 percent of the e-mail sent on the Internet, and Majordomo, which handles most mailing lists, are both open source products. BIND, which handles DNS lookups, and makes it possible to type www.entmag.com rather than 207.87.15.211 as a Web address, is also open source. Most of the best security software is open source: that's how it's improved and made secure. The open source approach mirrors the Internet standards development process, arguably one of the most complex computer engineering achievements ever.

"Open source has the benefit of being bulletproofed over time," says Richard Guth, vice president of marketing at Sendmail Inc. (Emeryville, Calif., www.sendmail.com), which is developing the open source version of Sendmail, and a binary version that is easier to maintain. "Customers like open source because it provides increased reliability and uptime, and lets you customize to a degree you can't do when you’re working only with published APIs."

At the same time, open source platforms are attracting a growing number of developers. "Linux provides remote manageability, stability and scalability, but it was not a decision we made overnight to port Oracle8 to Linux," says Arvind Jain, senior product manager at Oracle. "It all goes back to market forces: It would be foolish not to support operating systems that win."

There are indications that all of this has Microsoft worried. In a recent SEC filing, Microsoft noted, "Over the past year, the Linux operating system has gained increasing acceptance, and leading software developers such as Oracle and Corel have announced they will develop applications that run on Linux." While that is partly a red herring meant for Justice Department investigators, Apache is gaining market share at the expense of IIS, and Microsoft has been forced to release open source extensions to Apache that support Front Page.

IBM, for one, has embraced Apache in a big way, bundling the Web server application -- and offering commercial support for it -- when customers purchase IBM’s WebSphere Application Server product. "Apache's scalability and open standards were major factors in IBM's selection of the server software as the base HTTP server bundled with our WebSphere Application Server," explains Paraic Sweeney, VP of Web server software marketing at IBM.

Still, the triumph of open source is hardly a foregone conclusion. Maintaining software is so expensive that purchase prices are often a vanishing small component of TCO. Second standards never matter much. The religious fanaticism of Linux proponents may not be as effective as the billions of dollars Microsoft is investing in developing NT.

Ease of use is also a problem: Open source is built for hackers. "There are some problems hackers have historically been good at solving, such as feature and performance problems, and some that hackers have been fairly bad at solving, such as usability and user interface problems, and today, these are the major barrier to total acceptance," Raymond says.

And while support is getting better -- many open source advocates claim it already far surpasses the support available from Microsoft -- the ease and comfort of single vendor environments is hard to deny.

But the price of depending on a single source may be even higher. As Raymond says, "If you base your strategic business systems on closed source, you have mortgaged your business strategy to the whims of your software vendor."

NT Interoperability: Already Available

Of particular interest for the NT community is Samba (see http://samba.isca.uiowa.edu/samba/samba.html), a suite of programs that lets a Linux box appear to a Windows client as an NT server for printing and file storage. Also of interest is a highly partisan (but provocative) comparison of NT and Linux at http://www.kirch.net/unix-nt/. In addition, a few open source products are now becoming available for NT; Richard Guth, vice president of marketing at Sendmail Inc., notes that "NT is a platform we are committed to support."