Baseline Magazine (still one of my favorite sources of information about enterprise computing) has an article discussing corporations that share homegrown software using the Avalanche Corporate Technology Cooperative. According to their Web site, Avalanche's mission is to provide:
A gated community that enables our members to contribute, collaborate, and legally distribute intellectual property with other members.
The Baseline article starts with an example of Jostens Jewelers using Best Buy's homegrown application integration software:
"CIOs like the idea of collaborating," says Jostens chief information officer Andrew Black, a founding member and original sponsor of the co-op. "There's more to do out there than we have time to do by ourselves. If you're going to do Linux application servers and select a company, why not partner?"
Black says that spending less time on everyday applications allows his company to save its energy for "competitive advantage applications."
On the software taken from Best Buy, Jostens expects to save $150,000 in up-front licensing fees on the first phase of integration and $30,000 a year thereafter in maintenance. Black says the company doesn't expect to save any money on installing the software or its ongoing development.
The downside of all of this is that custom software is seldom a perfect match somewhere else, so it has to be tailored to fit its new home. One of the things I like about it is what Black says about competitive advantage. May IT shops are so busy chasing the help desk and infrastructure problems that they rarely have time to work on strategic value.
Utah's Dept. of Corrections did something similar in the 1990's when it built its offender tracking system, called OTRACK. As you might guess, there's not a lot of off-the-shelf software for running prisons. Typically governments turn to consulting shops like Accenture or BearingPoint to do the work. In this case, the department banded together with nine other Western states to share the code they had and develop new features. OTRACK is now widely used in those States and was a core part of Utah's Public Safety system.
Why not just look to SourceForge?
Lien says Avalanche is easier to use than an open-source repository like SourceForge, which has tens of thousands of applications, because the co-op is small. And there are fewer intellectual property concerns in a gated community, he adds. Avalanche ensures members' code won't raise concerns about intellectual property, and allows members to exchange code without working out rights issues every time code is shared.
I buy the first argument, but not the second. I agree that IT shops often have a hard time knowing what's out there in the open source world to solve their problems and they're not used to looking. That's why I think things like what SpikeSource is doing to certify open source stacks are interesting. The IP concerns, I think, are a red herring, but other's are more risk averse than I am.
Avalanche faces the typical problems that these kind of cooperatives have including membership churn and people's natural tendencies to look within first, both for solutions and priorities. What made the OTRACK venture work, in my opinion was strong leadership, stable membership, and a financial model that made sense for everyone involved.