OSS not ideal for niche, specialized apps

Open source software flourishing in infrastructure and platform layers of computing stack but less so in business processes due to lack of functionality, vendor support and awareness, industry experts note.

There are many open source projects being implemented across the entire software stack particularly in the infrastructure and platform layers because of broad-based community support, said industry watchers. The same traction is not yet seen in the business processes layer, however.

According to Michael Barnes, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, open source--from a business and IT perspective--is about achieving economies of scale in terms of developer resources and contributions for things such as bug fixes, support capabilities and distribution.

In fact, the broader the community and the bigger the scale of resources involved, the higher the likelihood of delivering high-quality, stable and functionally rich products, he explained in his e-mail.

Open source software sweetspots
Charles Zedlewski, vice president for product at Cloudera, concurred, saying that open source software (OSS) tends to be "most successful in broad, horizontal software categories".

While Zedlewski conceded it is difficult to make broad generalizations as open source companies or projects can be found in almost every software category, he said: "There are more open source software projects focused on enterprise infrastructure and systems software than on enterprise application software."

He added in his e-mail that it's easier for an OSS project to succeed when the developer community is inherently familiar with and aligned to the problem the project is trying to solve. For example, it's difficult to find a volunteer developer community that is very familiar and passionate about logistics systems, Zedlewski pointed out.

Elaborating, Barnes said that open source is not likely to be an "optimal approach" for niche or highly specialized applications addressing narrow functionality or requirements in verticals such as logistics, banking and finance or healthcare.

"In these markets, richness and depth of functionality are more important than economies of scale in terms of application development and upgrades," he noted.

Conversely, open source tends to achieve better performance and value in general purpose software infrastructure layers, which include operating systems, databases, application or Web servers and application development platforms, the Forrester analyst stated.

Gartner's research vice president, Brian Prentice, gave a different perspective on why OSS is not doing as well in the business processes software layer.

In a phone interview with ZDNet Asia, he said the reason why open source is a success in the infrastructure level is because the source codes are mainly written by the vendor community. Products such as JBoss and MySQL, for example, have plenty of vendor support because it is "strategic" for them to be involved, he noted.

Explaining further, Prentice pointed out that the reason why companies such as IBM and Oracle first got involved in Linux OS is because they were afraid Microsoft would dominate the operating systems arena, which is needed to run databases and ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems. To counter this threat, open source proved useful in helping dilute Redmond's market share, he said.

Microsoft Asia-Pacific's platform strategy lead Chris Levanes told ZDNet Asia in his e-mail that the software giant's support for open source stems from the reality that today's IT infrastructure tend to comprise of "mixed environments" of both paid and open source software. As such, customer choice should be honored and technology providers need to ensure the software businesses use is "as interoperable as possible".

Levanes added: "Interoperability is extremely critical for data and information to move efficiently across mixed systems and environments and is a key consideration for people who build and manage information systems."

Vendor support lacking
However, Prentice said the "dependency issues" among vendors at the infrastructure level are not brought up to the top of the stack and their lack of motivation to support open source at this level mean less traction for such projects.

In addition, Barnes added that the lack of understanding over the basic model of open source software among IT and business decision-makers, concerns over support and limited internal IT skills are holding back its adoption in Asia.

Addressing businesses' lack of understanding, Prentice urged them to be very clear of the usage and purpose of the open source software they plan to deploy as there will be costs involved. These include the costs of manpower and time to customize the codes for internal use compared with out-of-the-box software, he noted.

He also said IT departments will need to work closely with their legal counterparts to make sure the company does not incur additional royalty charges or run afoul of the law due to license management issues. Even small and midsize businesses (SMBs) ought to consult a legal counsel should they choose to use open source software.

"At the very least, get a white list of open source software that can be used for free. That would be a good start," Prentice suggested.

Asheesh Khaneja, worldwide executive for WebSphere competitive initiatives at IBM software group, added that business users need to determine the deployment implications and support needed in implementing and managing diverse open source components--which often come from small vendors.

"The fact is the true cost of OSS goes well beyond license purchases [and should include] the ongoing cost of management and support", he noted.