The State of Open Source in the Enterprise

By | November 29, 2004

All over the world there are conversations happening about “The State of Open Source” in various areas. Invariably, most participants will boil these down to two hard facts: on the consumer desktop, Open Source has made very little headway but in the corporate market it is gaining strong footholds.

However, these are sweeping generalizations. After all, even Windows includes certain Open Source components. And, even the footholds that Free & Open Source Software (FOSS) is gaining are hard to measure at such a high level.

So, we felt it was high time that someone took a look at how FOSS was doing in the enterprise space, particularly as it pertains to security and core infrastructure services.

When looking at how FOSS is penetrating the marketplace, there are 3 distinct areas we need to look at: edge services, application specific services and areas where FOSS has taken the place of other technologies in such a way that they are making a significant impact on the enterprise. After all, it’s one thing to run a low-level, steady DNS server but it’s quite another for FOSS to be powering the messaging and email platforms for 100,000 users.

At the Bleeding Edge

There was once a time when every edge device – that is, devices which face the external world or other networks – was powered by its own proprietary Operating System. These days, though, routers, switches and appliances are typically based around some flavor of Linux. In fact, the use of Linux in appliances – devices that fulfill one purpose and come preconfigured by vendors – customize Linux in such a way that they are said to be powered by “hardened Linux”, i.e.: a version of Linux with only the bare essentials for the task at hand.

The move is allowing network and edge service vendors to specialize more on tools which make the centralized management and updating of their products easier and more effective, which can only be a good thing for clients and end users.

Beyond powering network devices and appliances, FOSS is also powering key network infrastructure such as DNS, MX tables, routing systems and even authentication. In fact, the use of BIND and DNS through the popular Open Source server management tool Webmin has grown by nearly 300% this year alone.

It is safe to say that these days, Open Source software rules the edge of more and more corporate networks – regardless of any strategic decisions those corporations are making.

It’s the Service Stupid!

One of the areas that Open Source software is making incredible inroads is in replacing application-specific services. After all, if an application doesn’t communicate with any other application (like a database-based application) and if the FOSS alternative is free and provides greater value, often the choice to “crossgrade” is a simple one: more stability, more value and lower cost.

Obviously in many cases the choices aren’t as clear cut, but in the cases where the developers of the software have made a serious case, the crossgrade is often easy – because no other services tie into the application-specific service, there is simply little reason not to do the move.

Other case where the upgrade is easy is where the FOSS software provides better functionality using the same communications protocols. One example of this is FOSS-based DNS versus Windows-based DNS. To every service which requires DNS, the platform doesn’t matter because communication is standard. This is one of the reasons that edge or application-specific (or single-purpose application) services are seeing massive movement towards Open Source software.

Disruptive Isn’t Always Bad

The problem with the previous two categories, though, is that they are self obvious. Open Source software isn’t really competing on anything but its own strength, and because the alternatives are expensive it’s often an easy choice to make.

The harder choice, and the more telling on in terms of FOSS’s maturity, is where an Open Source system is competing against a large manufacturer’s flagship product – for example, Munich’s recent decision to move its desktops to Linux.

These are user facing services. Applications where it is obvious to end users that something has changed. These are, more often than not, the places where Open Source is getting the most press. After all, if you can get users to use real FOSS software – and use it productively – there are very few barriers left. Many industry watchers often repeat the truism: the desktop is the last frontier.

Here, on the desktop, there are certain key moves which are making things more and more appealing. First, is Novell’s concerted push to Open Source many of its products. In fact, Novell’s push may be the single greatest thing for Open Source software since Open Source software.

Novell: the Persistent Choice

Novell is providing the infrastructure, solid consumer applications such as GroupWise – a reasonably popular mail and messaging application – as well as providing SuSE, a Linux distribution and a new Linux Desktop.

In many ways, Novell is attempting to be to Linux what Microsoft was to Windows: the platform everyone wants to build on.

Until Microsoft, PC’s and PC-based software were merely disjointed, difficult to use and mainly adopted by geeks and other techies. Much like where Linux is at today. Microsoft provided an OS, a consistent desktop environment, some basic applications and a framework for others to build on.

Novell is taking the same approach, though they are doing it one better. Novell is, in effect, not targeting consumers. They are targeting companies. They are providing solid alternatives to every core Microsoft technology: directory services, authentication, user management, desktop management, patch management, network auditing…

By providing these core infrastructures first, Novell is answering the first question enterprises ask: what about all of my management software. After providing the infrastructure, the OS and the desktop, Novell is leaving the rest of the development to the FOSS community.

OpenOffice.org will be the preferred office system. FireFox will be the preferred web browser. GIMP will be the preferred image editing platform.

Whether the switch works, whether Novell’s aggressive advertising platform will draw new customers or whether the third party FOSS tools will catch on really isn’t the point. The thing that FOSS was missing on the desktop was a foundational suite of tools. Novell is providing that for the enterprise. And once people are comfortable at work, they will ultimately be comfortable with it at home.

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