Royal support for open source

Two Malaysian businesses have gained flexibility from open-source tools, but finding feature-rich applications remains a challenge.

MALAYSIA--Open source has been gaining significant traction across the Asia-Pacific region over the last couple of years. Two early adopters in Malaysia share their experience which mirror that faced by some open-source users, such as the benefits of added flexibility and the challenges of hidden costs.

Royal Selangor, a Malaysian manufacturer of designer pewter products, has been using open-source technologies since it deployed Samba, a file server platform, in 1996. Since then, the company's open-source deployment has expanded and it is currently using various open-source tools to manage its Internet access gateway, messaging server and Web development server.

"Once we were convinced that the server applications were stable, we scaled out the services for deployment on various servers," said Yong Yoon Kit, manager of Royal Selangor's IT group, who insists it is more "politically correct" to use the term, Free and Open Source Software (FOSS).

"FOSS is different in the deployment strategy because there are no licensing costs attached to it," he said. "It is up to the user to decide to try out the solution, and get it to work. Given enough perseverance, the solution will meet the requirements, or at worse, we reject the solution and search for an alternative."

Choosing the open-source route has given him more flexibility, making it easier to patch, upgrade and downgrade applications, Yong noted. He can easily swap between different alternatives of FOSS tools, he added.

"There is no vendor lock-in, and your data can be easily migrated," he explained. "Bug or feature requests are dealt with (by the open-source developer community) relatively fast, and 99 percent of the time, someone else has already requested for the fix."

And since there are no licensing fees to pay, Royal Selangor can carry out deployments of various scale--large and small--depending on the company's requirements, Yong said. If the solution is good, it can be scaled up to cater for all users without any budgetary constraints, he said.

However, Seah Hong Yee, IT manager at Polyscientific Enterprise Sdn Bhd, cautioned that organizations looking to implement open source need to realize that acquiring a piece of software for free, does not mean there are no costs associated with it. Polyscientific manufactures and distributes chemicals and industrial products for the Southeast Asian market.

The company migrated about 70 percent of its desktops to Linux, namely Novell's SuSe Linux and Mandriva Linux (formerly called Mandrake Linux). The remaining Windows user desktops were moved from Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) to the open-source Web browser, Firefox. It also deployed the OpenOffice productivity suite and open-source enterprise applications across the organization, including ERP from Compiere, and CRM from openCRX.

Typically, companies overlook the need to factor in the cost of competency, training and manpower, Seah explained. But he added that there are ways to control and maintain these costs.

He advised organizations to plan carefully and identify the cost multipliers in order to avoid excessive cost.

The good news is, Yong said, businesses like Royal Selangor that use open source, do not need to fuss over auditing issues related to the monitoring of software licenses, at the site, on a CPU level or by per-machine or user basis.

Systems administrators with FOSS experience also tend to be more independent and flexible, express a real passion for technology and have deep understanding of IT systems.

However, he noted that it can be challenging identifying feature-rich open-source applications that address Royal Selangor's requirements.

"During our evaluation, one of the biggest concerns we had about FOSS was the lack of features," he said. "Most of the time, there is no commercial incentive for developers to build the features we specifically need for our company."

"FOSS software generally, tend to be less feature filled than proprietary software. But that said, when a feature is implemented in FOSS, it almost always works better (than proprietary software)."

Interoperability issues
But for Polyscientific Enterprise, the number one concern currently is interoperability.

"From time to time, we still need to revert to IE due to various third-party supply chain solutions (mandated by customers), or e-government applications that cannot interoperate with any other browser but IE," said Seah.

The company still receives various Microsoft Office documents files that cannot be accessed via its Linux Desktop applications, he added. "This often becomes a support issue that we need to resolve," he said.

He noted that organizations that want to implement open source should "always allocate enough resources to test a solution".

"Look into reengineering the process a little," he added. "Anyone who is looking into this should start simple and proceed from there."

Seah said the primary job function of an IT manager is to solve business problems, not produce them.

"I often see people claiming they can solve some of the problems with 100 percent, zero-cost software which they've downloaded from the Web," he said. "But they spend so much time getting it to work that, if you factor in the cost associated with (the additional) manpower, it might have been cheaper to just buy an off-the-shelf (commercial software)."

He added that it is always wise to keep running tests before deploying open-source applications.

Cordelia Lee is a freelance IT journalist based in Malaysia.