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Why CIOs balk at open source apps

IT pros sound off on their bosses' reluctance to adopt major open source applications.

Major open source business applications - like those that cover collaboration and enterprise resource planning (ERP) - don't seem to be making a big impression on company decision makers in 2005.

A new, informal poll of top executives found that many use Linux, MySQL as an auxiliary database management system (DBMS), and Apache, but say that's about as 'mission-critical' as open source will get for the near future.

Executives' reasons for not using open source apps range from cowardice to common sense, IT pros say.

On the common sense side, some companies shouldn't adopt open source because they don't have the in-house expertise or manpower, said Kenneth J. Weber, proprietor of Weber Electronics. Too much "tinkering under the hood" is required.

The price/performance and freedom from lock-in that open source apps offer is appealing, but getting them up and running and working with legacy systems is still a "major headache," Weber said. "I long for the day that open source software is as easy and plug n' play as Windows, but it just hasn't arrived yet."

Sound biting reluctant CIOs

Why are corporate IT decision makers balking at adopting open source? Here are some IT pros' lighter takes on the subject. For reasons you'll see, they did not want to be identified.

"If something goes wrong, the chuckleheads always like to point their fingers at a vendor. It couldn't be their decision that is the problem; it's the vendor. If the vendor is Microsoft or Cisco, the chuckleheads typically get to escape unscathed."

"No exec wants to take a chance! They just want to go along with the status quo. My company is rolling out Outlook, for God's sake! What a waste of time, money and resources. Can we say virus?"

"A power outage caused two Sun servers to suffer hardware failures, so the company had only one available. Consequently, file and print, which was Linux-based, wasn't being fed sufficiently to offer a speedy service, so the sysadmin got an e-mail from the managing director saying, 'No more Linux.'"

Breaking up is hard to do

While open source apps are less costly than proprietary apps, breaking free of the latter can be very expensive, says Ken Hansen, validation analyst for Acculogix, a pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical clinical trial support provider in Bristol, Penn.

"Displacing an installed application is a very expensive activity, even if the software you are moving to is 'free'," Hansen explains.

Independent IT consultant and university systems administrator Brian Masinick adds that getting proprietary apps to play well with Linux and open source software presents its own difficulties. For example, some Web pages are only viewable from Microsoft Internet Explorer due to an ActiveX requirement.

Not enough apps

Hardly any IT pros faulted the functionality of today's crop of enterprise-ready, open source applications.

"Surely, no IT person believes that open source e-mail solutions are not better than Microsoft's offerings," said Kenn Murrah, a consultant and IT Manager for a commercial printing company near Dallas.

Hansen said the main obstacle to adoption is that there just aren't enough enterprise-ready open source apps to go around. As businesses' needs expand beyond lowest common denominator software applications - Web servers, database engines, operating systems, etc. - it's hard to find appropriate open source apps, he said.

"We need applications that can mimic every popular Windows application, and we need hardware support for every major system and peripheral," Masinick added.

The lack of options is felt keenly in vertical markets, according to realtors, insurance groups and some health care companies. In most cases, they say they're tied to Windows and proprietary systems until more reliable and interoperable open source business apps are unveiled.

Fear and FUD

While there are common sense reasons not to use open source apps for mission-critical processes, most IT pros believe that fear is the primary reason CIOs won't do it. Today, they say, no one gets fired for choosing Microsoft.

If IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle start moving more applications to open source, then CIOs will take notice, IT pros say. Until then, they'll play it safe.

"Most execs are, by their very nature, conservative and will always follow the path of least resistance," said Sid Boyce, a retired mainframe and SPARC server technical support specialist from the United Kingdom. "They will pay whatever is asked to stay with what they deem is safe, works… and requires little thought."

But don't lay all the blame at the CIOs' feet, because everyone – from customers up to the CEO – is resistant to change, says Jose Vaz Pinto, investigator auxiliary for the National Institute of Engineering in Lisbon, Portugal. Hassles with proprietary software, however, will gradually force them to accept a change to open source.

The competitive edge

Those CIOs who aren't resistant to change are getting a jump on their competitors, said Vaz Pinto. Those "smart" CIOs understand that many open source business applications hold up well in production, and will one day be the norm, he said.

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