In a few years' time, almost all businesses will use open source, according to Gartner; even though IT managers may be unaware of it, and prefer to talk about fashions such as software as a service.
Open-source promoters have welcomed the endorsement by what is seen as a conservative commentator, but predict the changes will go further than Gartner assumes.
"By 2012, more than 90 percent of enterprises will use open source in direct or embedded forms," predicts a Gartner report, The State of Open Source 2008, which sees a "stealth" impact for the technology in embedded form: "Users who reject open source for technical, legal or business reasons might find themselves unintentionally using open source despite their opposition."
However, Gartner argues that at the operating-system level, Linux deployments are showing smaller benefits in total cost of ownership (TCO) as it is applied to more demanding projects, because of the technical skills required to use it: "Much of the availability, management and DBMS licensing costs will remain proprietary," says the report, and "version control and incompatibilities will continue to plague open-source OSs and associated middleware".
"Gartner has woefully underestimated the penetration of open source," said Mark Taylor, president of promotion group the Open Source Consortium. "Everyone uses [open source] on a daily basis in services like Google."
However, he welcomed the analyst's prediction that open source would disappear from view: "Open source has been promoted since 1998. If it fades from view now, because it is embedded in the mainstream, that is exactly what we wanted."
Gartner has also underestimated the benefits of Linux, said Taylor: "There are a range of open-source business models, from a completely proprietary version where open source is used as a sprinkling of magic pixie dust, to a full-on, services-based deployment using a free Linux distribution. Gartner assumes that the pseudo-open proposition will hold sway, but companies change. They may initially need the reassurance of a proprietarised version of Linux but, in our experience, they are then increasingly happy to go to a services model, using a distribution like Debian."
Gartner misses the point that a free licence does more than cut the cost of ownership, said Taylor, pointing out that it provides other benefits. "Licensing is only a slice of the total cost, but historically, companies have only bought as many licences as they can afford. If you remove the licence cost, you may only remove three percent of the of total cost of the existing project, but you also remove the brakes — you massively expand the numbers that project can be rolled out to at no extra cost.
"Open source gives massive scalability at no transaction cost, for whatever you are doing," he said.
IT managers who simply want to cut costs will look to software as a service (SaaS) rather than open source, says the Gartner report. "More technically adventurous IT projects will often prefer the direct use of open source and on-premises software development, but the mainstream IT organisation looking to reduce the IT cost burden will tend to choose SaaS where it is available."
This is nothing more than marketing-speak, said Taylor: "It's a very superficial analysis," he said. "The two will become almost indistinguishable as 98 to 99 percent of SaaS will be open source." And Gartner agrees that, by 2011, open source will dominate software infrastructure for cloud-based providers.