Open Source: Pick Your Projects With Care

Open source really is taking over the enterprise, says Matthew Sarrel. But you still have to choose carefully which projects to do, and how to develop them

For decades, open-source software has been controversial. Development and licensing took root in the 1980s and picked up steam with the proliferation of the Internet in the decade that followed. As open-source tools and components began to grow more familiar among developers, enterprises approached open-source cautiously, with an eye toward questions of suitability, scalability and support.

However, the emergence and rapid scale-out of open-source-powered startups highlighted the unique potential of these community-developed components. As Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, puts it, “could Google or Amazon be what they are if they were built on Windows and .NET? They wouldn’t have been able to buy and track licenses as fast as they could roll out servers.”

A parade of successful open-source initiatives, coupled with year after year of tighter budgets, has ensured that OSS (open-source software) is now entrenched in the enterprise – and that was born out in a recent eWEEK Europe poll, as well as a recent study by Accenture.

In a keynote at Linuxcon 2010 in Boston, Jeffrey Hammond of Forrester Research asserted that when it comes to enterprise IT adoption, open source has “crossed the chasm,” pointing to the expanding embrace of open source among enterprise developers and decision makers alike, as indicated in a series of surveys carried out in 2008 and 2009. (See Hammond’s keynote slides here.)

Today, questions around open-source adoption in enterprise IT continue, but rather than asking if or when, organisations are increasingly focusing on how.

Using OSS as components of enterprise applications is in some ways a game changer, but in some ways it’s not. Organizations still need to follow software development best practices, but success with open-source software comes with its own wrinkles, such as finding the right components, interacting positively with the community and understanding and navigating open-source licenses.

Finding the Right Projects

While the free availability of open-source components can work to catch the attention of developers and organisations, the value of any component, whether open source or not, boils down to much more than acquisition cost. Jim Zemlin of the Linux Foundation said the “‘hey-this-is-great-because-it’s-free’ story is 10 years old. We’ve moved on to more sophisticated questions. Companies now want to know which projects are good, where can they get them, how are they best implemented, where can they find the best developer talent to work with OSS, and how can they contribute and improve it.”