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Community Column: Open Source: Perfect for the commercial world

Jul 02, 2001, 23:00 (2 Talkback[s])

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[ Thanks to Mark Simmons for this link. ]

By Mark Simmons

Linux in the past few years has been treated with a degree of contempt by the commercial and business users, but is this really fair? With the major vendors recognising the availability of GNU/Linux and Open Source ability, it should be considered as the solution to revolutionise the e-commerce and legacy world and excel its reputation of reliability. Is Linux really the solution for the commercial world, or has it been tied to the desktop for too long? The latter of course was only a stepping stone in the plan.

Being fortunate enough to know the history of GNU/Linux and the way it was back in the 1970s and 1980s, I think it is fair to say that the whole concept for free distribution of an operating system was not something readily accepted, due to the fact that any user of a computerised solution were committed and contractually tied to its hardware supplier and the operating system. As time has passed the Darwinisation of the PC has become so popular it became part of the household landscape, but the choice presented to a normal amateur has been limited to MS Windows, secondly IBM OS/2 and a last in the running, a revolutionary Linux, the latter being treated and visualised as a hobby product until it really started to take off. Later on in the early 1990s we saw not just an evolution of operating systems, but the parallel, difficult acceptance of a similar philosophy, that tended towards the application and business solution arena. Unfortunately, treated in the same vain as the operating system, the penetration of the solution model struggled until recently.

Open-Source GNU/Linux generated a freedom, a gold rush in the age of the dotbomb boom. Simple solutions with easily available and reliable operating systems, packaged with firewall, administration tools and development tools for the e-commerce world, was a start. Indeed, an accepted, perfect, and cost-effective model had never yet been seen until this era. Since the dotcom boom and dotcom burst, there have been major players like telcos adopt the product and philosophy as their preferred, most reliable and efficient development base. What more recommendation is needed to prove the point? Stories and tales keep appearing though, such as PDAs running Linux, mobiles with Linux, Televisions in the digital age based upon Linux, and much, much more. So why are the corporate commercial operations so reluctant in adopting Linux as a standard?

To answer the question is relatively simple; IT directors and supporting management responsible for IT systems have not yet realised the benefit of such a philosophy. After all, they do not understand it, to them the risk of not knowing appears very high and they do not know how to use the Open Source community to its best. This article unfortunately has a limited scope and it is not intended to cover every detail, but to understand a few basics, we must first turn the model around and look at the fears that are faced in the corporate mind and IT infrastructure.

Firstly, there is not one complete solution in place. Over the years, a business would have introduced many solutions for different issues or departments, and many of these systems to be effective today need to be joined together. In some cases, this may be more difficult than at first glance. Secondly, an organisation has to maintain numerous service and support contracts with the suppliers. A contract for hardware, a contract for support and a contract for the application software, which, if a modification is required, the work to be conducted may be quoted as days and thousands of beans. Since most companies do not own application source and if they did there would undoubtedly be a clause to prevent alteration to it, the customer is limited to trust and rely heavily upon the supplier for changes required, is that fair? If the client or business is dissatisfied with the suppliers for what ever reason, then changing providers can be difficult process, proving costly, political unstable and disruptive to the whole business, an undesirable by any sensible IT director, that values his/her job. They are locked in.

Furthermore, a brave IT director, or because of circumstances out of their control, may have to change suppliers. Once the transition is complete, the cycle begins again. So how can Open Source and FAM (Free Application Movement) differ and offer a commercial success to all parties? Let's imagine that the client can tender to one central location for an application that can solve a particular business problem, such has settlement system for a private client stockbroker in the financial sector. A supplier responds with a close match product for an acceptable fee, the deliverable meets all of the specified criteria at X beans, any enhancements to basic model are required to satisfy localised variations, this adds to the cost giving x+y. At a planned time the system complete with source code is made live and in use by the companies staff. Support for the operating system and the application software is awarded to one or more providers, but at this stage is not necessarily needed, except where a comfort factor is needed, knowing that there is a source of expertise in the unlikely event of a problem.

Whether or not the organisation signs up with a service company, any changes to the operating system, or business application can be presented to any other service provider or broadcast across the community. Someone will pick up and resolve the requirement according to the specification. The cost will be decided at the outset and paid in full on delivery.

Choice of support is more important than first realised, as it is something that has never been experienced before, yet always longed for. When there is a problem, a directory of resource is available that is capable of solving the issue. Any change requirements or luxuries can be broadcast amongst the community methods and cherry picked by an appropriate expert and turned around speedily. A fee is paid.. Varying levels of service can be arranged with various companies, but since the source resides with the client company, they can call upon any successful and reputable resource to satisfy their needs. The major benefit of the Opensource and FAM model, is that there are no cumbersome license agreements, so as a clients business grows, there are no extra costs that need to be budgeted in. Astounded yet? Maybe not.

Since experts in this field were ahead of the integration and open systems game, any disparate systems that a company may own, will be able to be integrated in some shape or form. The diverse expertise is out there and available through a single source.

If a conclusion has to be compiled, then freedom, ownership of the source, no license fees, availability of skills and resource to fix problems or to develop enhancements are all readily available. The distribution of software to smaller companies or acquisitions of the main business is freely available. Desires of a company dictate, freedom, cost effectiveness, availability of resources, a reliable and flexible solution that works well and retain any office tools and integration with popular market products, services or communication methods are key to the consideration of a business solution. How close does the commercial supplier get to these requirements?

As an example in the growing market of customer relationship management (or eCRM), this methodology is ideal with the inclusion and integration of 3G and 4G mobile, the proviso of applications; the list is unlimited. So why is it not a perfect model for the commercial world?

Habit and poor understanding is the cause of all issues related to acceptance of the Opensource and FAM philosophies. It is also ignorance and laziness that prevents the research and investigation into such technologies for many businesses. Ironically, it is far simpler to replace a system using Open Source with numerous organisations that will guide any organisation through the process, than it is to retain the large supplier that creates the locked-in psyche.

The Open Source model will be freely accepted commercially and one day there will be no preferred alternative, the time line for globalized acceptance of such methods is certainly within the next five years, so hold on to your hats and do not get left behind. It is your choice and a free one.

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