Open source training more attractive to workers

Workers and students alike eyeing open source skillsets to make themselves more attractive to employers. But, education effort needs coherence, says analyst.

Schools are heeding the call from organizations seeking IT personnel skilled in open source, but such efforts must involve broader industry participation and greater integration across the curriculum, according to an analyst.

With regard to open source modules, Patrick Chan, chief technology advisor for IDC Asia-Pacific's emerging technologies practice group, said a more concerted effort is required on the part of institutions to move universities in the same direction.

Speaking to ZDNet Asia in a phone interview, Chan explained: "[The coursework] is very proprietary right now, with only a few big name vendors backing up tertiary projects."

There are pros and cons to this arrangement, he noted.

On the downside, vendor-branded education may limit workers skilled in that vendor's technology from moving to another employer running a different vendor's software. "There's a lot of ad hoc effort right now by universities spearheading open source curricula," he said.

But the benefit of vendor tie-ups is that universities can offer students coursework that carries a vendor's accreditation, providing assurance for future employers, Chan said.

"Universities do need the vendor branding and expertise, while vendors want to subtly put their treadmarks into the coursework," he said.

Nonetheless, student interest in open source technologies is healthy, he noted.

Vendor community split on schools
Open source giant, Red Hat, has been actively launching education and training programs in the Asia-Pacific region over the past few years, aimed at increasing open source mindshare.

Under its Open Source Collaborative Innovation (OSCI) banner, the vendor has recruited tertiary institutions in Singapore such as Temasek Polytechnic and UniSIM, as well as the Asia Pacific College of the Philippines and Bangkok University to offer its Red Hat Certified Technician (RHCT) certification examination to students and staff members.

Last year, it also tied up with the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) and the Workforce Development Agency (WDA) in Singapore to offer Red Hat-specific training to working professionals.

Arun Kumar, Red Hat's senior director of business development for Asia-Pacific and Japan, said universities are partnering open source vendors because students are seeking affiliation with large vendor brands, bearing plans to align their careers to these vendors.

"There is a tremendous amount of traction in every market. Universities see the tie-ups as a value add, and we're hoping that the growth in skills and interest will increase adoption of our technology," Kumar said in a phone interview with ZDNet Asia.

In a 2008 Goldman Sachs survey of U.S. companies, Red Hat claimed over 80 percent share of the Linux server operating system market.

A Sun Microsystems executive said last year there were insufficient facilities to educate and spread open source adoption in the region, and highlighted schools and governments in Asia as slow to adopt open source technology.

He said Sun, which is now owned by Oracle, was addressing this through its Java platform and running a project called the Java Education and Development Initiative (Jedi), which provides course material for free. Educational institutions and industry players have been roped in to contribute and help develop the course syllabus, which Sun said conforms to international education standards.

But IBM has yet to bring open source to tertiary institutions. Charles Manuel, IBM's Asean program director of strategic initiatives and ISV (independent software vendor) developer relations, said in a phone interview with ZDNet Asia that the company is "considering" bringing open source to its IBM Academic Initiative program, which currently offers universities course material on its proprietary middleware products.

For now, IBM is prioritizing education around its products such as DB2, Tivoli and Rational, where it has detected a gap between demand and supply of graduates skilled in its technologies in the region, said Manuel.

"Open source is part of the [education] roadmap. Right now, we are focusing on clear gaps in the marketplace around enterprise middleware...but we are certainly considering open source.

"We just need to make a decision on how to make that relevant to Academic Initiative. We need to select the right time," he said.

IT professionals flocking to open source
While the tertiary audience is expanding, Kumar noted that interest in open source training is growing faster among corporate professionals in the Asia-Pacific region. In fact, a larger proportion of such training is funded by the employees themselves, with the minority funded by their companies, he said.

This signals the willingness of individuals to arm themselves with open source knowledge for future job prospects, Kumar noted.

He added that Singapore's enterprise demand for open source skills has surpassed the supply of such workers in the country, but the gap is closing quickly. This demand has shot up from a low base some two years ago, he said.

Students were then hesitant to be involved in open source training because there was little demand from companies. This resulted in the current gap between demand and supply, he said.

"That has changed very much now," he noted. "There is a huge influx of interest targeted at open source because everybody is predicting that the data center infrastructure scene will be a two-horse race between Microsoft and Linux."

He added that many professionals looking to get Red Hat-certified are already skilled in Microsoft technologies, and are coming to open source because they are seeing open source being adopted in more organizations.

"The investments we made two to three years back [in training programs] are paying off now. The gap will be closed in the next 12 to 18 months," he said.

But Kumar disagreed that vendor-branded curriculum would be restrictive to students.

"Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is not a closed operating system. There is no lock-in.

"Just because it's our brand doesn't mean a student is pigeon-holed into Red Hat [technologies]," he said.

And because Linux is the most-deployed open source technology, Red Hat-certified students will have more mobility within the workforce, he added.

IBM's Manuel said the company is engaging IT professionals through online training and Webinars, as well as online courses offered for free.

The company has an open source "community edition" for its DB2 and WebSphere products, but it does not have a certification program for these editions. It certifies IT workers for the "upper tier" flavors of these products, such as DB2 Universal Database and Enterprise Server Edition, where the training focuses on "certain skill requirements" that come with these flavors, said Manuel, adding: "We have not brought certification down to the open source side."

Nonetheless, there has been a growth of interest in IBM's open source material, based around its middleware community editions as well as Linux, he said. The company hosts a monthly open source gathering in Manila, Philippines, which has been well received, and it expects to increase the frequency of this, as well as bring it to other cities in the region, he added.

Cloud growing open source interest
Cloud is also playing a big part in making open source more attractive as a career skillset.

With cloud players such as Amazon EC2 running Linux on the backend, IDC's Chan said organizations are evaluating ways of moving to the cloud and looking for the relevant skillsets inhouse.

As such, organizations are on the hunt for workers skilled in open source, the analyst explained.

Kumar said the move to cloud computing will require organizations to reexamine their backend infrastructures and move to open standards, so that they are able to move apps between cloud providers without the fear of vendor lock-in.

In particular, he said, small and midsize businesses in the region moving to outsource their infrastructures to cloud providers will drive interest from vendors to embrace open standards.

He noted that Asia is currently at the "forefront" of the industry move to the cloud, both in the data center and in thin-client architecture, because of a comparative lack of legacy infrastructure compared to Western counterparts.

"It was not surprising to us that the first China cloud center was [established] way ahead of other developed markets, such as the United States," he said.

Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst had pointed out in a previous interview that open source is experiencing "rapid growth" in Asia because of greenfield opportunities in which new data centers, particularly in China and India, have the option of choosing open source from the start.

In comparison, an estimated two thirds of Red Hat's business in the U.S. is targeted at replacing existing systems, he said.

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