Open Source 101

I am frequently amazed at the lack of awareness of open source issues regularly exhibited by IT decision makers. I’m not talking about the people inside the server room but rather the people on the other side of that deceptively thin barrier. The bad news is, of course, the guys with the teakwood tables tend to want to be involved in decisions relating to a firm’s IT direction. Though they may not be able to tell the mail server from the fax machine, they seem compulsive about being consulted on larger IT issues (defined as “those with dollar figures attached”).

The Suits involvement in IT is a given; a fact of corporate life as relentless and inevitable as the Pointy Haired Boss in a Dilbert cartoon. The issue becomes then, how can we decrease everyone’s frustration levels and collectively make better decisions? The trick is to cut down on the disconnects between the decision makers and those who must implement the decisions.

To that end, let me proffer suggestions: Let’s start by shifting the discussion from the largely hypothetical discussion of “moving to Open Source” to the imminently more practical “what are the issues we face in this changing environment.” After all, the question is not whether you will implement open source, but rather when and to what extent. (Don’t argue with me on this! Quick question: What do the following firms have in common? Oracle, Novell, Microsoft, Sun, IBM? Answer: Explicit and significant commitments to open source. Resistance is futile.)

So let’s assume for a moment you’ve finally made the leap, crossed the Rubicon, joined the converted — or at least you want to be able to hold your head high at the next cocktail party.

Now that we’re past that, where should we be focusing our energies? What are the issues today? Glad you asked…

The most heated and interesting discussions in enterprise open source today involve the following topics: virtualization, licensing, interoperability, and stack management. Get a basic awareness of these issues and you can at least hold your head high at the next company mixer.

Virtualization: It’s all about how to do more with what you have. At its most basic, virtualization allows you to use one piece of hardware to do the work of many through the creation of “virtual machines.” (Confusingly enough, it can also improve your ability to synthesize multiple resources into one coherent whole.) Operating systems that provide the flexibility to leverage your physical hardware in this manner are one of the sexiest trends in the industry at the moment and one in which all the big boys are playing. Why should you care? Virtualization has the potential to save you money, make your resources more effective and to provide enhanced redundancy and disaster recovery capability.

Licensing: GPLv3 is only the tip of the iceberg. Trust me, the bulk of this opaque behemoth lies below the surface. Moreover this is the sort of topic that only a lawyer can love — and a particularly twisted one at that. To non-lawyers, it’s like trying to read hexadecimal. The short version goes like this: Before you bring anything into your firm, find out the licensing terms, then run it by legal to see if it conflicts with any of the other licensing terms currently in force in the firm. Why should you care? If your only planning on running the software, there’s little to fear, but if you are planning on bringing it into a development environment, step lightly else you may run into IP headaches (and even more lawyers).

Interoperability: This is not truly an open source issue. The question of how to get system A to work with system Z is not new, but still remains a concern to this day. Open and agreed standards can make everyone’s life easier on this score, but getting agreement on what exactly those standards should be is another matter entirely. New industry focus groups, like the Open Solutions Alliance (OSA) are taking aim at these topics, but it’s still early days and much remains to be done. Why should you care? Because you want to pick the winner.

Stack management: This is closely related to the previous topic in that the interoperability of components in a stack of software is one of the key issues. Interoperability is, however, only step one. Once you figure out what works with what, then you have to assemble, deploy it, patch it and maintain it across time. A crop of new firms have popped up to help with this task, a real world tribute to the importance and potential complexity of the task at hand. Why should you care? Because getting it right will cut down dramatically on the anguished moans coming from the other side of the door to the server room.

So there you have it: Just enough information to let you fluff your way through a cocktail conversation with the guys from IT. It may not be much, but it’s a start and if things begin to get too heavy, excuse yourself and make a break for the buffet.

Originally published in ComputerWorld (HK) in May, 2007.

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