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Opening up to open source, part 1

Firms mulling an investment in open source technology have plenty of questions. Is open source truly ready for the enterprise? Is it a proper fit for my company? Which licensing issues do I need to be concerned with? It's Stan Dolberg's job to help them find the answers.

The president of Carriage House Consulting and a former head of research and strategy at Forrester Research, Dolberg has spent time developing a decision making framework that companies use to gauge their readiness for open source. He says the process of deciding if open source is a proper fit begins with an understanding of the business of open source, and ends with some serious soul searching.

Here, Dolberg tries to clear up some of the confusion about the business of open source. And be sure to read part 2 of the Dolberg interview, where the consultant delves deeper into the open source decision making process.

It seems there is still some confusion out there in terms of the viability of Linux and open source. Are those...

technologies truly ready for prime time? Linux definitely is. Linux as an operating system is now in widespread use. It started in universities and then it proliferated into the scientific and engineering space to support clustering. And now you can buy Oracle on Linux, you can buy SAP on Linux. You can buy all kinds of commercial software on Linux. People are migrating off Windows and Unix and all variants of those to get to the lower cost hardware that you can run Linux on. So there is no question about Linux. What about open source applications? Are they ready for prime time? There is no one answer to that question. [You have to ask] what kind of expertise do you have in your company, and what is the fit between those characteristics and what is out there. And at that point it becomes a sourcing question. Do you want to build it? Do you want to outsource it? Do you want to source it from an open source provider or do you want to source it from a proprietary provider? You have to look for those fits between your needs and your skills as an organization. With open source you need some special skills to deal with some of the intellectual property and licensing characteristics of software that's out there.

 An open source project comes from a dot org and an open source product comes from a dot com. Keep it simple.
Stan Dolberg
presidentCarriage House Consulting
How do you define open source and proprietary providers?
There is a lot of terminology and confusion around open source. People talk about commercial open source and non-commercial open source. I use a different terminology. An open source project comes from a dot org and an open source product comes from a dot com. Keep it simple. If you're getting open source and it's coming from a dot com like a Novell or a JBoss or MySQL, you're buying an open source product. There are tens of thousands of projects, and there are a growing number of products that enterprises can buy and implement essentially as a package. [The buy the packages so they can] have some additional choices, less single vendor dependency, and lower cost hardware and license fees. Can you elaborate a little on exactly how open source vendors make money?
If you're selling something and you're providing it under an open source license - which is one of the approved licenses under the OSI definition - you can't charge for the license. But you can charge for the distribution which is packaged with support, with updates and with services. And that's what Red Hat does. They technically don't charge you for software. There is a set of terms and conditions that vary buy vendor. But doesn't MySQL charge for its software?
There are some examples, such as with MySQL, where they actually distribute their software under two different approaches. One is under an open source license, where you have all the obligations of an open source license. If you change it you have to distribute your changes and so fourth. The other way you can get the MySQL database is under a commercial license where you pay for the software and you are relieved of the open source requirements. This is not a static situation. In the case of MySQL, they've developed their own technology so they're not incorporating source code from other people. They can dictate how they do it. They are distributing that as open source and as proprietary source for a fee. There are a lot of interesting things out there in terms of the ways that you get this stuff and what sorts of obligations you have to the vendor or to the community.

Be sure to read part 2 of the Dolberg interview, where the consultant delves deeper into the science of how companies decide if open source is right for them.

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