IT management software ranges from hundreds of point solutions to huge integrated bundles for high-end enterprises. Aiming for a target in between is Robert Fanini, co-founder and CEO of GroundWork Open Source Solutions Inc., a startup in Emeryville, Calif., that has built its simple, low-priced IT management package on open source code. In this interview, Fanini explains how open source will open the eyes of now-doubting chief information officers (CIOs).
Fanini and GroundWork co-founder David Lily started both Foglight Software (now Quest Software) and SiteRock (now NaviSite Inc.) before their new open source-based venture. Foglight was a successful proprietary application performance management product company and is now known as Quest Software.
Are you seeing more interest in open source software for the enterprise?
Robert Fanini: We are seeing a lot of pressure on top management from their IT staffs, the technical people who want to use Linux and open source software.
On the other hand, quite a few CIOs have told us that open source is not really on their radar right now. Why do you think they're not very interested? What will change that?
Fanini: CIOs may have indicated that they aren't currently focused on open source because most open source software is being used within development departments of large enterprises. Open source alternatives first made big inroads as development tools -- Apache (used on over 80% of Web servers) would be a good example of this.
Benefits of using open source will become more apparent to CIOs when its use becomes a choice within the IT department. This will increasingly evolve as open source applications become easier to find and use. The fact that technical resources embrace open source will continue to have a positive effect on open source adoption within corporations.
What qualities of open source products make them a good choice at this point in IT history?
Fanini: Today, businesses' IT infrastructures are heterogeneous. So, it is important to choose tools and software applications that are flexible and have the ability to interface to existing tools and existing programs. Open source packages tend to be very flexible and easy to interface with simply because they're not proprietary.
Some CIOs tell us that they hear a lot about open source software's greater flexible and simpler interface, but they don't really "get" why open source has these attributes? Can you explain?
Fanini: The simple answer is that open source, by its nature, is designed, influenced and constantly modified for universal use and application. To do this, inputs and outputs to the open source system are typically based on the most widely accepted standards or, at the very least, the protocols for these interfaces are open, defined and published. Also, because the source code is freely available, users can easily modify interfaces to send and accept information of a variety of formats. This allows for ease of integration with existing systems, tools and data.
By contrast, commercial software is 'closed' (e.g., no access to source code) and typically has proprietary interfaces and data as a way to protect commercial vendor IP and promote future business once a customer standardizes on the proprietary commercial solution.
Some CIOs believe that they'd have to overturn their IT staffs in order to bring in open source, because their current Windows or Unix managers wouldn't have the skill needed to take advantage of open source. What's right and wrong about that belief?
Fanini: There is truth to the fact that bringing Linux into a Windows/Unix shop will require the IT staff to be trained on Linux administration. I believe that most technical types would welcome the opportunity to learn how to work with Linux since it's gaining so much market share so quickly.
You've said that you've found that companies are very open to an open source-based management solution. What types of management systems do you usually find in these companies? Why are they so open to replacing them?
Fanini: The IT management market has many players and we've found that most of our customers own at least three or four different types of monitoring and management solutions to various levels of satisfaction. Most companies have invested in management tools specific to a particular IT 'silo' or discipline such as networks, applications, databases, etc. Most customers lack wide visibility of the IT environment across silos.
GroundWork's solution provides for a very efficient way to gain access to the performance and availability across the entire IT environment. Because we deliver source code (and an open interface), customers can easily interface GroundWork to there existing tools to accomplish visibility across the entire IT environment. It is this feature, along with a low-cost solution when compared to commercial tools, that compels customers to move forward with the GroundWork open source solution.
How are the IT managers using open source software? Are they using admin tools like Nagios or security tools like Snort? Or are they actually using open source mission critical applications?
Fanini: Open source is rapidly spreading into mission-critical applications as evidenced by the adoption rate of Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP and Mozilla. Further, it is widely accepted that open source software is more reliable and secure than proprietary software.
Besides being open source, what technologies, capabilities and functionality does GroundWork's product deliver that isn't delivered by other products? Could you compare your product to a competitor's, feature-wise?
Fanini: The functionality unique to the open source approach is the ability to easily interface to other systems as described above, and flexibility. [The latter comes from the fact that] the customer has access to source code and can make modifications if necessary.
GoundWork compares functionally with most popular commercial tools that exist including OpenView, Patrol, Tivolli and Unicenter. Our approach is to limit features to those that are necessary in return for ease of installation, use and maintenance. Since most commercial tools have to compete among each other by 'out-featuring' the competition, we believe that most new features found in commercial tools are overkill, unnecessary and lead to shelfware (never implemented or used) in most cases.
What major changes do you see coming to IT management technologies? For instance, will big monolithic packages wane?
Fanini: I believe we are already seeing big monolithic packages decrease in popularity, as evidenced by recent sales results for packages like Patrol, Tivolli, OpenView and Unicenter.
I believe that IT management software, like software in general, will begin to include a more service-centric approach. Customers are turning their focus from buying software to buying solutions. Software packaged with services or sold as a service seems to be the trend and what customers are looking for. I believe that the rapid adoption rate of open source is pushing the software industry to a more service-oriented approach.