There was a time when open source software was almost inseparable from the image of altruistic, community-loving developers, coding away in command line interfaces in a darkened room. But those days are long gone. Sleek open source applications have made their way into the enterprise and sometimes give the proprietary giants a run for their money. In this feature, three local organisations share their open source stories.
“Try to not have any preconceptions about what open source can and can’t do,” says Brett Cross, manager of gaming systems at New Zealand Lotteries Commission.
When considering going open source, take the time to learn about the product and speak to local support partners, he says.
“Don’t be afraid to get your hands on it and do a proof-of-concept. It will go a long way to address any concerns the business might have, and to show them the benefits open source can provide.”
That is exactly what Cross did before rolling out a Red Hat/JBoss solution in 2008. New Zealand Lotteries Commission uses Red Hat in conjunction with JBoss for its MyLotto environment, which is its corporate online presence, as well as an online transactional e-commerce site, he says. The organisation also uses Red Hat servers for its gaming environment.
Cost was a big driver for NZ Lotteries Commission when going to market for the solution. Because of its pricing, JBoss was “very attractive” to the organisation compared to some of its counterparts, says Cross.
“Our suppliers in the gaming environment are moving more and more down the open source path so JBoss was in line with the current stack, and that was quite important to us,” he says.
The Red Hat environment proved a bit more challenging to justify. After a selection process, Cross and his team needed to convince management that the benefits of the solution would outweigh any concerns, he says. On the surface, open source often looks cheaper but Red Hat can work out more expensive than Microsoft if you are a big corporate and get a Microsoft volume licence, he says.
“It was a challenge for me to get Red Hat to drive costs down to match or beat the Windows equivalent,” he says.
The team then went through a rigorous proof-of-concept process, aiming to showcase to the business the tangible benefits of the platform. This process greatly helped to justify any additional upfront costs, he says.
Benefits of the Red Hat/JBoss solution so far include being able to leverage fast development of the system and solid support, says Cross.
“The product seems to be ever-evolving,” he says. “For each version there seems to be a big evolution in terms of features. I don’t see that level of evolution in some proprietary systems.”
The Lotteries Commission also benefits from the active and engaged user community, he says. There is a perception that the only support you are going to get with an open source solution is a mailing list or a forum, and that may have been true a few years ago, says Cross. But now, there are very good support partners locally, in particular in the Red Hat/JBoss space, he says.
“People joke about the mailing lists and online forums, but they really are an invaluable source of information. If you ask a question you get an answer pretty much straight away. There are also quite good debates leveraging off lessons learnt. People just seem to be much more willing to share their experiences than they are with [proprietary] systems,” he says.
Another myth, and potential challenge, is management of an open source environment. Cross says there is a common misconception of someone “plugging away in a dingy command line, having to recompile the kernel every time they are trying to do something”. That is just not the case anymore, he says. “Open source management interfaces are superior to what they were, even just two years ago,” he says.
“Sure, the likes of Websphere, Windows and VMware have very rich GUI-based management tools which, traditionally, open source tools don’t have,” he says. “But Red Hat’s Network Satellite management system is a fantastic tool that saves admin overheads for us.”
Managing patches, images and snapshots for 30 servers from a single point is a big timesaver for the company, he says.
JBoss’ management tool, however, still has some way to go, he says. On the other hand, if a JBoss solution will cost you $100,000 less than another system, that might offset having a fancy management system, he adds.
Security was a major concern for the Commission, given the industry it operates in. Even the smallest security glitch could cause irreparable damage to the brand, he says. Cross says the high-profile, internet-facing platform hasn’t had any security issues in two years. “So from that perspective, I have no concerns”.
NZ Post’s experience
New Zealand Post chose to use Drupal for content management of its new website. The system runs on Linux virtual machines so the entire stack is open source, says NZ Post strategy and architecture manager, Barry Polley.
The reasons why the organisation selected Drupal include the large community it comes with, says Polley.
“There is also good support in the local market. Drupal offers a diversity of available plug-ins and it is very extensible, which means we have to build less ourselves,” he says. “So far we have built nothing – everything is configuration of existing code. If we need to extend something ourselves to meet our specific needs, we get a certain level of assurance and risk protection from contributing it back to the community, rather than keeping it to ourselves,” he adds.
In short, Drupal was a safe choice, Polley says.
“We are long past the time when a proprietary solution is the safe choice in all domains,” he says.
At NZ Post, developers use the tools that work best to get the job done, and frequently, that happens to be an open source project, but it might just as well be a proprietary tool, he says.
The company also uses some open source software on the desktop, running both Microsoft and open source software, including Open Office, on people’s Windows machines, he says.
“We are trying to respect user freedom in that sense. People are free to choose the tools that get the job done,” Polley says.
“Our long-term goal would be that staff can use whatever software they want on whichever device they want and it would all automatically work. We are very far from that,” he adds. “But with open source you are much less likely to have something nefarious going on because the source is available.”
On one hand, some people argue that because the code is out there, there are less bugs. But others say that the quality of the contributions is not measured and therefore you can’t promise that your application is secure, Polley says.
“They are both wrong,” he concludes. “There is open source stuff that is not particularly stable or reliable, but if it meets organisations’ needs people will invest the time and energy into the community to improve it.”
Polley’s experience is that if there is a bug that needs to be fixed, or security hole identified, the cycle time to deploy a fix is usually shorter with the open source model. Having said that, Microsoft recently identified and fixed a critical bug in a couple of weeks, which impressed Polley.
The security myths around open source needs to be dissolved, he says.
“Anyone who has a background in application security knows that it is not true that open source is less secure,” he says. “But people that are removed from the software development process sometimes buy that line of reasoning.”
Proprietary companies sometimes measure the security of their products in how much they spend on securing them. “To me that is not a measure of security, it is a measure of how broken the thing is in the first place,” says Polley. “I have seen some very sloppily designed open source code and I have worked with some incredible unstable proprietary code.”
NZ Post spends quite a lot of money and effort on securing its customers’ data and using open source does not change that, he adds.
Another myth is the idea that you have to share every single thing you do with the community, which is not true at all, he says. “If you don’t want to distribute the object code – you just want to use it internally for your own purposes – there is no obligation to redistribute,” says Polley.
When it comes to cost, open source software may not come with licence costs, but it still has to be supported. Licence cost tends to be a relatively small part of the lifecycle cost of the system and NZ Post tries to be mindful of that, he says.
However, using open source has “absolutely” had cost benefits to NZ Post, says Polley, and in general, the open source software the organisation has adopted recently has cost less than going the proprietary way.
For example, the organisation uses Google Apps for internal low-sensitivity work. Using Google, which utilises open source extensively, is a huge saving for NZ Post, he says.
Consuming IT as a service is part of NZ Post’s strategy, and as long as the service provider meets the delivery expectations, the organisation is not concerned whether they use open source or not, he says. Interestingly, Polley has found that many providers operating in the service-oriented world have an emphasis on open source.
Polley has been in the IT business for 25 years. He says open source has made a strong comeback in recent years. “We didn’t call it open source back then, we called it ‘sharing’. It was a good way to learn from one of other and become more efficient,” he says.
Council chooses Silverstripe
The Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC) uses an open source content management system from local open source specialist Silverstripe for its website, gw.govt.nz, and the Greater Wellington’s public transport network site, metlink.org.nz, as well as the mobile version of the site. Apart from that component, the council is pretty much a “pure Microsoft shop”, says Brett Sangster, communications manager of the GWRC.
The council went to market two years ago for a CMS for its external sites. Most of the companies that responded were open source providers, he says. GWRC’s conditions included that the application had to be able to run in a Microsoft environment, which discounted most of the open source offerings, however not Silverstripe, says Sangster.
“We didn’t choose Silverstripe necessarily because it was open source – it met the criteria we were looking for,” he says. “It ticked the most boxes.”
The council migrated more than 3500 pages of content from the old to the new system, and added new integration capabilities and features at the same time. It was a large and complex build and some teething problems were always expected, he says.
The Silverstripe CMS lets council staff publish content in real-time, as opposed to the previous system which had a three-times-a-day publishing cycle. That just didn’t meet the organisation’s needs, says Sangster.
Another benefit of Silverstripe’s systems is that it is intuitive and easy for people for learn and use, especially for people not using it every day, he says.
“We don’t have a web content team. We have got what we call a distributed authorship model where staff throughout the organisation are responsible for different pages on the site and manage those pages.”
He says the open source system “definitely saves money” by not having to pay licence fees, but there are still costs involved in development work, administration, upgrades and support of open source products.
“In some circumstances, open source means lower cost,” he says. “But hopefully, organisations make choices based on what the application can deliver for them, not just because it is open source. You want the best fit for what you want to do.”
The variety of open source applications and the range of functions they can deliver are greater than a couple of years ago, says Sangster. Integration with mainstream applications, such as Microsoft and SAP, is continuously improving, he says.
“I also believe the mainstream developers are mindful of the fact that open source is here to stay.”