Open source solutions

By   |  May 5, 2003

By Dumisani Mtoba
Senior Systems Engineer at Sun Microsystems SA

Sun Microsystems is putting its long history with Open Source software (OSS) to good use in delivering solutions to the South African market that are a combination of both OSS and proprietary software.

Today the company takes a mature and equivocal approach to both OSS and proprietary software offerings, with an overriding philosophy of providing customers with solutions that leverage the best of both worlds.

Sun was one of the first major systems vendors to deliver products based on OSS. However, we certainly don\’t take the view that OSS should be the sole basis for effective solutions. Rather, a best of breed approach must be taken to deliver the attributes that businesses require to solve technology problems. Attributes that include security, reliability, and performance – and above all, cost-effectiveness and the removal of complexity from the datacentre environment.

Quite simply, complexity, especially in the datacentre, equals cost. For example, opting for an OSS solution with a lower initial purchase price, but requiring extensive customisation and integration, may simply end up being more expensive in the long run.

Sun\’s approach to delivering OSS-based products started with it shipping Cobalt server appliances in 2000. These devices were delivered with the tools to configure them without having to go too deeply into Linux. The idea was to provide small businesses with solutions to get them up and running quickly and affordably. While these machines were based on Linux, this fact was not stressed as the functionality of the machine was more important to customers than the technology it contains – demonstrating Sun\’s commitment to eradicating customer-facing complexity in favour of functionality. However, owing to this approach, there has been a mistaken perception that Sun is not committed to OSS.

Among the contributions that Sun has made to OSS is the development of Java technology, and the subsequent opening of the technology through the Java Community Process (JCP). The company has also provided numerous additional Sun-developed technologies, such as its Grid Engine, to the open source community. Recently, the company shipped the latest version of its open source productivity suite, Star Office 6.0, with a significant difference: it is for sale at a highly affordable price point, whereas in the past it had been free.

This is noteworthy because the price is negligible, but gives customers access to the Sun support network, thus one of the potentially major obstacles to widespread OSS adoption – that of who carries the responsibility for support and backup – is removed. In this case, Sun\’s proven support establishment can now be called upon. In South Africa Sun has appointed Pytron Technologies as the South African distributor of Star Office 6.0, increasing the support network for the product and giving businesses the assurance that their decision to opt for an open source alternative will not be stymied by a lack of recourse.

For some of the more mature Open Source elements, like LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) and Squid proxy, support fears are not entirely justified as these technologies are proven and widely used, by sheer virtue of the fact that they have gained market share through attrition.

Nobody wants to be the first to deploy new technologies in a production environment; however, at some point the momentum of adoption of many other OSS technologies will be so great that they will be considered by virtually all organisations that are making IT purchasing decisions. Until that day comes, OSS has to continue to fight to prove its credentials.

With the days of indiscriminate ICT purchasing gone, customers are increasingly looking for solutions that will deliver value at the lowest possible cost. Having suffered from hype-induced buying that delivered little ROI, the level of scepticism about adopting the latest and the greatest has increased considerably. This does not bode well for OSS as it is perceived as being new. On the up side, the need to cut costs has made OSS and the underlying inexpensive hardware platform on which it runs, an increasingly compelling alternative.

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