Late last year, Computer Associates' Ingres r3 Database became one of the most prominent examples of previously proprietary code to be published along open source guidelines.
Other companies have released the source code of proprietary software but Ingres was unusual as it is a high-end enterprise database being used by over 15,000 customers.
CA's chief technology officer Yogesh Gupta says the software company decided to open source Ingres to fill what it saw as one of the main gaps in the open source stack -- the lack of a high-end enterprise database.
"We thought: 'What can we contribute?'" says Gupta. "We have a database that is mission critical. We also have tens of thousands of CA customers and if we move to open source they will no longer have to pay the licence. But, we are willing to do this, as this is the next big hurdle for open source."
Gupta claims this apparent bout of unprecedented altruism was actually a decision based on extremely commercial foundations. "We believe it is in the best interest of CA's business in the long term -- we hope they [users of the free Ingres database] will come back to us for support, we hope they will buy extra software," he says.
But analysts claim there may have been other forces at work here. James Governor, principal analyst at Red Monk, claims CA's decision to open source Ingres is actually about the company trying to hang on to its existing customer base.
"This claim that 'the open source market needs a high-end enterprise database', I'm not sure that's true," says Governor, "The open source database with the momentum at the moment is MySQL and it's not being adopted because it's seen as a high-end enterprise technology.
Although Governor questions CA's real motivation, he claims the decision to open source Ingres is sound. "There are customers using Ingres and this is good for them. When someone comes along and asks them [the customer's Ingres team] to swap to another database, they can say 'It's open source and we have support'. It's a good defensive move," he explains.
CA should at least be praised for giving free access to Ingres even though it probably won't attract many new customers to the database, says Gary Barnett, research director at Ovum.
"Having garnered a reputation in the 90s for doing very little for the technology they acquired, it was a surprise to many people to see their [CA's] approach to open source," says Barnett. "In my view they didn't get enough credit for open sourcing Ingres. They have open sourced a proper, pucker, enterprise-level database. It is more widely deployed in enterprises than any other open source database. It was a very clear and unambiguous approach."
At the same time as CA released Ingres as open source, the company also launched a contest with $1m in prizes to encourage developers to write software for the database. CA's Gupta says this contest was set up to help foster a sense of community around Ingres and generate interest in the platform.
"We are trying to build a community around Ingres," says Gupta. "But it was also how do we create some excitement? How do we create some buzz? The vast majority of open source projects have less than 10 people contributing. The fact is we have hundreds of people contributing to Ingres."
Since releasing Ingres as open source six months ago, the database has attracted a lot of interest from the community, says Gupta, but the results of the contest, which closed on 5 February, should give some more clues as to exactly how well received the move has been.
"We have had enormous interest from individuals and small companies," he says. "Ingres has had many thousands of downloads and hundreds of contributors. There are lots and lots working on their submission for the contest."
Gupta claims CA has contributed more to the community development model than any other large vendor. As well as the Ingres strategy, CA has also contributed to the Kernel Generalized Event Model which is due to be incorporated into the Linux kernel. The software is designed to improve Linux security and to feed performance information from systems built around the OS to management software.
"This is the most substantial contribution to the kernel that has been made by an ISV," says Gupta. "Among large software companies we are the most committed to the open source movement."
CA has also worked on various open source projects including the Apache Web server, JBoss application server, Zope Web content management system, and the Plone document management software.
Despite these efforts, Red Monk's Governor says CA has not yet won the hearts and mind of the open source community. "I haven't seen CA's commitment translated into groundswell of support from the open source community," he says. "I think this is because Ingres is a defensive move and it is charging a fair amount for its tools on Linux. The pricing models [on Linux and other platforms] are still pretty similar. Linux customers are saying, 'We just want light-weight Linux monitoring and reporting at a light-weight price.'"
But despite the overtly commercial motivation, Ovum's Barnett says that CA's contribution to open source is significant when compared with other large contributors such as IBM and Sun.
"They've contributed more than a lot of technology companies," says Barnett. "No software vendor has made a greater contribution to open source than IBM, but given CA's size relative to IBM, their contribution is relevant. Sun is ahead of IBM but its relationship to open source is ambivalent."
IBM has contributed to various projects including Apache and software development platform Eclipse. It has approximately 500 employees working on Linux development at IBM's Linux Technology Centre, according to Adam Jollans, the worldwide Linux strategy manager at IBM. It has also made one-off donations of source code, including the Cloudscape database and voice recognition software.
Sun is involved in various open source projects including Linux desktop GNOME, Java servlet engine Tomcat and open source productivity application OpenOffice.org, which was created when it released the source code of StarOffice in 2000. It released the first piece of Solaris source code on Tuesday and is planning to release the remaining code over the next few months.
But, Sun has been accused of trying to undermine Linux and has been criticised for not releasing the source code of Java.
Applications on Linux
CA’s Gupta claims his company started offering the majority of its applications on Linux at least three years ago, before many ISVs presented this option. "Our major products have been on Linux for three or four years," he says
Ovum's Barnett says that this is a positive move as one issue that could hold back Linux is the availability of applications. "Right now they [CA] wouldn't lose a lot of business by not having applications on Linux," he explains. "Them doing this is helping Linux."
But Red Monk's Governor says CA has no choice about moving to Linux, as many companies are enforcing the use of Linux to cut costs. IBM is in a similar situation to CA and their role in promoting the take-up of Linux has been exaggerated, he claims.
"System management companies [such as IBM and CA] don't have a choice -- many customers are mandating Linux as an environment," says Governor. "People talk about IBM pushing Linux, IBM has been dragged to Linux. If you don't make your applications available on Linux you can't sell into some of the biggest companies in the world."
Future plans at CA
Gupta says CA is unlikely to open source another technology in the near future. "At this point I don't see another CA technology that will imminently be put into open source," he explains.
Ovum's Barnett believes it is unlikely that CA will ever release the source code of its most popular software, such as its Unicenter management software. "I don't see them open sourcing chunks of their crown-jewel applications like Unicenter," he says
Red Monk's Governor believes CA is unlikely to get more support from the open source community unless it contributes to one of its newer technologies.
"If they committed something new, rather than something legacy [Ingres] to the open source community -- that's when they'll get support," says Governor.
The attitude of the majority of the former proprietary-only software vendors to open source appears to be one of 'If you can't beat them, join them.' CA has certainly done more than most to join the open source movement but only time will tell if the belief goes deep enough to guarantee the company's long-term surivival as enterprises increasingly see community developed software as a trustworthy alternative.