Open source has been given a boost over the last two years because of the global economic crisis, and is now also seeping into the mainstream from the periphery, say industry analysts.
Vuk Trikovic, senior analyst at Ovum, said in a phone interview that the recession sent a call for change in the enterprise environment, where the model of paying for support is winning mindshare over the traditional licensing model.
"It's a long-term trend toward the commoditization of IT," Trifkovic told ZDNet Asia.
He explained that the need for interoperability to support open source projects helped raise the demand for standard-based architectures and drive down cost.
The recession also raised the profile of cloud computing, which in turn has had a positive spillover effect on open source, he said. With companies looking to offload services to the cloud, companies are now adopting standards to ensure smooth data traffic between clouds, he said.
These developments have helped recast open source software as a means for enterprises to lower cost, he said.
"For a long time, open source has been considered a best-effort option, but the open innovation cycle and broadening participation base have allowed people to add quality to [open source projects]," Trifkovic explained.
"As companies look to reform budgets, they may look at something else for which they can pay for support and that will do the job just as well."
Vendors see growth
One vendor that has seen a boon during the recession is Red Hat, which said in a previous report that its business model allows the open source software vendor to compete as a low-cost supplier of technology.
Red Hat last month reported that its 2009 revenues increased 15 percent over the year before. The company makes money from providing support for its Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) server OS, which is offered to customers for free. They then have the option to sign with Red Hat for a support contract. Subscriptions for this had accounted for US$164 million, or 84.5 percent, of Red Hat's US$194 million revenue in the third quarter of last year, a 21 percent climb over the previous year.
According to Trifkovic, there has also been a rise of third-party vendors that are reliant on open source for their businesses. "It's clear that cloud computing and open source go well together, with [third parties] providing cloud services that are powered by open source," said the analyst.
Because open source avoids the traditional per-server licensing model, startups have had the opportunity to expand their server farms, he said.
By the same vein, expanding infrastructure providers have been able to offer their services at lower cost, allowing more startups cheaper access to compute and storage, he added.
He said the Apache Hadoop framework is an example of free software that has proven the might of an open source stack while keeping costs low for adopters. It has also spawned innovation based on third-party products that have sprouted alongside Hadoop, he said.
The Apache platform was created based on Google's MapReduce technology, to crunch the increasing stores of research results at the search giant. It performs distributed computing on large data sets.
While parts of the MapReduce technology is held in secrecy at Google, Hadoop is distributed under the free and open source Apache License.
Infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) giant, Amazon, last year launched a cloud computing service based on Hadoop, called Amazon Elastic MapReduce. The service is aimed at offering data intensive number-crunching to businesses and researchers, riding on Amazon's cloud.
Startups such as Cloudera have also risen up to offer Hadoop to enterprise data center customers.
Trifkovic said: "Google itself probably wouldn't exist without Linux because it allowed the company to grow and experiment."
Mission-critical cloud in Asia
IDC Asia-Pacific's chief technology advisor, Patrick Chan, said the Asia-Pacific region is experiencing a "definite" move toward the cloud, albeit at a slower pace than expected.
Companies have not been rushing in because open source deployments did not scale as well in its earlier years, Chan told ZDNet Asia. But cloud infrastructure players supporting Linux has been a great vote of confidence for open source and that, combined with matured technical specifications for open source projects, have allowed the open source ecosystem to come together and present a compelling choice for CIOs, he noted.
Interoperability has also made great strides in the past year, the analyst said. There has been a move to cross-test and certify hypervisors across proprietary and open OSes.
These initiatives have led to performance improvements, giving companies less reason not to deploy open platforms in an hypervisor environment for fear of the lack of interoperability, said Chan.
He added that CIOs in Asia are turning to Linux to run critical portions of their business. Of this, companies are also running Linux without paying a vendor for support and more are likely to do so.
"Customers that deploy Linux tend to have high confidence levels in Linux, and their experience in [non-commercially supported] Linux has only served to raise their comfort level with the quality of Linux code," he said.
Trifkovic added that Asia has turned to open source for the "pragmatic" reasons around cost savings. This is contrasted with European adoptions of open source, which are "often philosophical", he said.
Web apps pushing client adoption
Enterprise buzz around open source is also slowly spreading beyond server OSes, where it has mostly been over the past years, and into client-based computing, Chan said, noting that the latter remains "the great hope" for Linux.
"Each year, desktop Linux shows a nominal growth but the wear and tear is beginning to show on Microsoft's strategy," he said, pointing to how the software giant had reacted to Linux encroaching on its market in the netbook space.
In March 2008, Microsoft backtracked on its strategy to retire the aging Windows XP and reinstate the OS for netbooks to counter the rising Linux threat.
The low-powered devices were not capable of running Vista, forcing Microsoft to extend XP's life for the netbook category. This helped Microsoft overtake Linux's headstart in the netbook space.
Nonetheless, Chan said Linux is making a slow break into the desktop space. He noted that few users would have wanted Linux on the front-end in the past. This is now changing, thanks to Web apps, which have helped reduced the importance of OS on user devices.
"Enterprises are placing their services on the Web for their users, so this is an evolution of desktop behavior that will continue from casual use to office work," he said.
Google, for instance, plans to release at the end of this year devices based on a minimal Linux-based OS that is centered on its Chrome browser.
Thee Chrome OS devices are targeted at users who spend most of their time working on Web apps through a browser, which Google said accounts for an increasing portion of PC users because of the growing sophistication of Web services.
The open source desktop space is one that leading Linux vendor Red Hat has opted out of, however.
The consumer space does not pose a viable business proposition for the company, Red Hat had previously said, adding that it does not want to compete in a space that "suffers from having one dominant vendor".
Trifkovic noted that while Linux desktop OS usability has improved in the past years, it still needs to catch up to mainstream OSes.
"Makers of desktop software need to think about the user interface for regular users, not the technology audience," he said.
New perspective on mobile devices
Away from the desktop arena, the mobile space also holds "huge opportunity" for open source adoption, he noted.
"Mobiles can reset the consumer mindset. These users are not coming from a Microsoft scene as [they do] in the desktop space but from a fresh new perspective," Trifkovic said.
And user demand for companies to support their Linux-based phones may help sway IT decision makers to be more receptive to open source, he said. "People are becoming more at ease with open source, with Google's Android being supported in more companies."
Jin Heon-Kyu, SK Telecom manager of open marketplace business team, said in an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia that the Korean telco has observed growing developer interest in open source on OSes such as Android and Nokia's Symbian.
"Developers like that Android lets them [code for] multiple vendors on both the carrier and phone fronts," said Jin, noting that SK Telecom opened a mobile test center last July in response to this demand. The center provides developers some 1,000 test terminals and 18 rooms for building and testing codes, he said.
The company last month also started a training center called T Academy, focused on mobile content development. The initiative employs a faculty of 74 to reach out to tertiary students and is based on "actual market needs and demands", said Jin.
"Open source software allows the mobile communications industry, which had been dominated by [large mobile manufacturers], to open its doors to experimentation by individual software developers," he said.
Adopt open source where mature
But, enterprises should not rush into open source adoption with proper planning.
IDC's Chan said: "Open source still needs a holistic blueprint. While several stacks such as OpenOffice.org have matured, a more concerted effort is needed to drive open source as an industry.
"Right now, it's mostly development in individual projects," he said.
The analyst said open source development needs increased vendor support and "sponsorship" in order to be harmonized across the sporadic projects.
Ovum's Trifkovic, too, said: "We shouldn't be too bullish on open source. There are areas where the market isn't ready, or where projects aren't ready, and where open source needs a new audience, such as the desktop space."