The Open Source Ecosystem

More than half of the large firms in North America are employing Open Source software in some fashion, and another 19% are planning to use it by years’ end, according to Forrester Research. In a new report, entitled “How Firms Should Work With the Open Source Ecosystem”, Forrester Research outlines the history and drivers behind the trend and looks forward to the development of what they label the “Open Source Ecosystem.” The report, issued in early October, is the result of interviews of more than 30 different vendors and enterprises over the last nine months. (It’s a long study window for a fast moving area.) Companies interviewed includes a mixture of such industry stalwarts, such as 3M, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard, and some of the highest profile new names, including SpikeSource, Black Duck, and Jboss. While very positive about the long term view, Forrester presents in this report a balanced “warts and all” view of Open Source from the perspective of commercial IT adopters. The drivers of the Open Source movement have been hashed out ad naseum in the IT press and there no surprises in this portion of the report: Low acquisition costs, availability of source code, use of open standards, and vendor independence are all cited as the major reasons behind adoption. But Forrester does cautions that these recognized advantages aren’t felt equally across enterprises. The ad hoc approach inherent in significant adoption of open source in an IT department is something many firms aren’t comfortable with. The report also notes that the cost advantage is not distributed equally either, as the cost of developing of mission critical software systems in Open Source can approach that of proprietary solutions. Forrester notes that the movement has also brought new headaches along with the new benefits. The primary difficulties cited: difficulty with integration, lack of knowledge and skills within IT staff, inconsistent or limited support, complex and sometimes restrictive licenses. Many of the headaches cited reflect the lack of coherent architecture with Open Source as a whole. The gaps and inconsistencies in standards and platforms create problems managing and integrating multiple projects. The issue is complicated by the variety of organizational structures used to drive Open Source projects, from ad hoc communities, to non-profit organizations, to commercial concerns who also maintain Open Source projects. The varying structures sometimes present priorities which are not entirely consistent with traditional ISV-centric business practices and also present, though Forrester doesn’t discuss it directly, various levels of business risk. The gaps in the system lead Forrester to conclude that the Open Source movement is not yet organized to meet the needs of the enterprise. While the report notes that there are a number of projects that are stable and produce reliable programs, the growth of Open Source as a whole has outstripped the emergence of an effective parallel system of product development, distribution, services and marketing — the “ecosystem.” Despite the nascent state of the industry, firms are beginning to identify the gaps in the ecosystem as business opportunities and new players are emerging. For example, there is a whole new crop of firms whose goal is to assemble multiple projects and then test and certify them. Forrester labels this new class of businesses “open source assemblers,” and the group is typified by SpikeSource, SourceLabs and others. Also noted are the “Risk Managers,” that is, firms who provide indemnification and license audits to help companies deal with the special requirements of Open Source licenses. Until such time as the eco-system catches up, Forester advises companies who embark down the Open Source path to assemble their own “do-it-yourself ecosystem.” While they note that embarking on this course solo is a daunting task it is easier managed incrementally. IT managers should strive to identify and be familiar with code repositories, risk managers, integration and development resources, and support providers. Looking to the future, the report paints a very positive picture for the movement, stating: “Forrester believes that the open source ecosystem will use its strength of cooperation and collaboration to organize as a Software Innovation Network. This further evolution of Open Source will be welcomed by many and represents, in my view, a logical extension of where we are today and the most fruitful path forward for the movement as a whole. Originally published in the Bangkok Post 26 October 2005.

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