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An Open Secret

Open-source software is quietly gaining ground well beyond the data center.

Last November, Openbravo, an open-source software (OSS) company in business for less than three years, celebrated the one-millionth combined download of its enterprise resource planning (ERP) and point-of-sale applications. While the number of actual deployments is far less, given that developers often download the software as part of a tire-kicking exercise, the high interest in an open-source application as sophisticated as ERP reflects the increasing traction that OSS is gaining in the corporate world.

Indeed, by 2012 more than 90 percent of enterprises worldwide will deploy OSS in one form or another, predicts Gartner, an information technology advisory firm; over the past four years the corporate interest in OSS application and infrastructure software has shown a slow but steady increase. Yet many corporate managers may not realize the extent to which open source has already infiltrated their enterprises — not only as stand-alone software but also bundled with proprietary applications. Even those companies that have openly rejected OSS “might find themselves unintentionally using open source despite their opposition,” says Gartner in a recent report.

Open-source software is still used most often in operating systems, particularly in various forms of Linux, with which it is virtually synonymous. But more than half of companies adopting OSS are rolling out open-source applications, according to a Gartner survey conducted in 2008 of 274 enterprises in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. When those rollouts take the form of new projects, versus extensions to or modifications of current systems, the OSS applications in question are just as likely to involve mission-critical tasks as they are to involve smaller-scale IT needs.

Ready for Prime Time

One of the initial raps against OSS was that, while the idea of free and continuously modified software had a certain appeal, it also inspired a certain terror; what business would hitch its technological star to software that was pulled off the Web and unsupported by a major vendor? Who knew what lurked in the code, or how easily that code might be cracked into?

Today, the recession and its attendant impact on IT budgets have prompted companies to live with a certain level of anxiety. And, as well, years of experience by those on the cutting edge have shown that many applications within the OSS world may now be ready for prime time. Vendors do in fact play a role in supporting OSS, and while their fees have been rising, overall cost of ownership is still substantially lower; often that vendor support feels more like a security blanket than a shakedown.

“We’ve seen rising interest in open-source software over the last six months,” says Kim Weins, senior vice president at OpenLogic, an open-source provider that certifies OSS. “CFOs should consider open source. It may not be the best option in every case, but it’s probably the best option in more cases than they realize.” An OpenLogic survey of its clients found that nearly half plan to deploy more OSS as a result of current economic conditions, and another third are considering it.

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