Open for business

By   |  March 31, 2006

Open source software is not just ready for mission critical implementations, but is in many cases an even better choice for organisations. This is the message delivered by Computer Sciences Corporation’s (CSC) Bill Koff, who was speaking in Johannesburg this week.

Based in New York as the vice president of CSC’s Leading Edge Forum, Koff was in South Africa this week to talk to local businesses about the findings of a report on open source software co-authored by himself. The report itself is not all that new, first published in 2004. Koff, however, was speaking this week about many of the changes he has observed since the report’s initial publication.

Koff is by no means an open source evangelist, even if his company positions him as its ‘open source guru’. He is more of a realist and doesn’t preach switching to open source software unless there is a good business case for doing so.

He is, however, an enthusiastic supporter of open source software and the potential it holds for business and government.

Community, says Koff, is the heart and soul of open source software, with community-minded individuals making up the bulk of the loosely-defined open source community. Interestingly, says Koff, there is evidence to suggest that apart from hobbyists and community-minded developers, there are an increasing number of developers participating in the open source development community because they are paid to do so. As en example he points to IBM and the number of employees it has working on open source projects, particularly Linux.

According to a survey of developers conducted by the Leading Edge Forum (LEF), says Koff, they found that as many as 25% of developers are participating actively in open source development projects as part of their job. Another 29% participate in order to learn a new skill.

Skills development, he says, is a key issue in open source community involvement. In fact, says Koff, there is a trend among businesses to encourage their development staff to participate in open source projects. They don’t do this for philanthropic reasons, says Koff, but because they want their staff to learn new skills. They are in fact handing over some of their skills development obligations to the open source community.

Understandably however, says Koff, many businesses are still nervous about staff participating in open source projects that might result in portions of their proprietary code being worked into open source projects and open source code finding its way into their proprietary applications. The best way to deal with this, says Koff, is to ensure employees are well aware of what they can and can’t do in open forums ahead of time.

There are other legal issues around open source software, says Koff, although he doesn’t “believe they are big as they are made out to be”. He says that much of the fear for businesses around open source licences originates from the Santa Cruz Operations (SCO) litigation suit against IBM. Although the SCO issue is not as prominent as it was in the past, says Koff, it is still a lingering threat. “The SCO litigation is not a threat to all open source development but you need to be aware of it if you are running Linux,” he says.

“GPL (free software), may be free to use,” says Koff, “but there are still many obligations in the licence that have to be fulfilled.” The first question to ask yourself, says Koff, is whether you are a producer or a consumer of open source software. “If you are just a consumer and you only use OSS but don’t change it and or sell it on to other users then the obligations of the GPL are not as big an issue for you.”

“But if you are producing and providing others with applications then you have to worry about the obligations and how it will affect your code. This can,” says Koff, “be a real problem for organisations”.

The fear of legal ramifications to using open source software have caused many organisations to mitigate or even shift the risk of using OSS. In most cases this means that instead of using a Linux distribution downloaded from the Internet many business users are choosing an established brand such as Red Hat or Suse Linux which offers some form of indemnification.

More than Linux
He also cautions that open source software is more than just Linux. “Today you mention open source and everyone thinks you are talking about Linux.” Which is partially true, he says, but the extent of the open source community goes well beyond just Linux and includes applications such as OpenOffice.org, Firefox and Thunderbird and similar cross-platform applications.

The pre-eminence of Linux in the open source world, says Koff, is largely because of the early-day battles for market share where some companies aggressively promoted Linux as an advantage over operating systems such as Windows. “Linux was a conscious attempt by IBM … which was very focused on pushing Linux as a competitive advantage against proprietary companies,” says Koff. As a result, Linux became synonymous with open source software.

Beyond Linux, says Koff, IBM is not all that active in the open source arena.

He also cautions that there is a great deal of confusion in the market as to what is open source, what is open standards and what is just plain free software – proprietary or otherwise. He cites voice over IP application Skype as an example. “It is free but it is not open source. The makers made a decision to keep the source closed.”

Koff says that on the desktop Linux use has not grown as quickly as many predicted it would. One area where Linux desktops have grown significantly, says Koff, is in the engineering-type sectors. In these often higher-end environments Linux has gained a lot of popularity as existing workstations reach end of life.

A copy of the Open Source, Open for Business report can be downloaded from http://www.csc.com/features/2004/uploads/LEF_OPENSOURCE.pdf.

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