In less than a decade, the use of Open Source Software (OSS) has become mainstream, even in notoriously conservative large enterprises.
Government, which has developed guidelines for its use and selection, is now a major user while vendors such as Novell, IBM, Red Hat and Sun supply or embed open source systems in their offerings.
There are now thousands of OSS suppliers, ranging from these big international vendors down to specialist firms such as Silverstripe or Catalyst IT as well as many individual developers.
“Open source software in terms of ‘free’ software is a viable source of many enterprise software capabilities. Open source development is going to become very prevalent across the entire marketplace,” says the enterprise architecture manager of one large user, Inland Revenue’s Duncan Reed.
An “Open source adoption paper” from the Ministry of Justice, written in February, notes a variety of benefits from the technology such as cost savings, improved quality, avoiding vendor lock-in, faster time to market for fixes, agile deployment and less chance of deployments being stranded should a vendor go bust or cease supporting an application.
The paper followed the State Services Commission releasing its own guidelines in 2003, noting assessment criteria such as cost, interoperability, functionality, security, plus possible legal implications.
The SSC uses OSS in webservers running Apache, the Plone CMS systems for the e-government website and several other government websites. The Silverstripe CMS and Wordpress is also used and the recent rebuild of the government portal was also in open source.
Spokesman Jason Ryan says the SSC is pleased with the operation of its OSS systems, which is why it has continued using them.
Implementation challenges are no different to those of proprietary software, he says, and there is “quite a pool of people” capable of fixing bugs.
“We have reissued advice that agencies should consider all possible solutions including open source, “ Ryan says.
Barry Polley, who produced the Ministry of Justice “Open source adoption paper”, says government departments have the same needs as other businesses, such as user-friendliness and functionality. The public sector might be seen as risk averse, but it faces the same issues of support as other organisations. This might push users towards using proprietary software, but if the vendors of the software cease supporting it, you have lost your support, whereas with open source you still have the source code, which can be supported by the wider open source community.
The New Zealand software market is very fragmented, with many providers, but it means there may just be a few with the right specialist skills.
“The challenge that we have is picking a product that will be supportable in the labour market,” Polley says.
The Ministry of Justice uses open source for network operations and Plone, an application workflow system, is used used on its intranet.
Plone is now being adopted by other government departments and the Ministry of Justice has pilots for vertical applications using open source for transcription, content management and matters peculiar to the operations of tribunals and courts.
“Our standard remains Microsoft Office,” continues Polley, “We are fairly pragmatic. The standard is to look at goodness of fit. Open source has been working well so far. Five years from now we will wonder what the controversy was.”
The IRD notes the growing maturity of open source systems, with vendors offering it as part of their solutions, which can be better than proprietary alternatives, says the IRD’s Reed.
Community testing of systems soon exposes faults, with support having a real community spirit, often delivering responses faster than commercial offerings, due to the larger number of developers.
However, open source vendors are not always as skilled as their proprietary competitors in putting together responses to tenders.
Despite that, the IRD has 450 servers running on Linux and is a big user of Novell’s SUSE Linux flavour. The department has some webservers based on Apache HTTPD, infrastructure applications such as virtual IP load balancing and system monitoring from Nagios. Some open source business applications are now also being used for course management. Many IRD development tools are open source, such as Eclipse, Netbeans, Subversion, ZK toolkit, and so on.
“We consider that some open source is of sufficient quality to use on mission-critical systems, and many of our Linux servers are used as part of mission critical solutions,” Reed says.
He says the skills for installing and operating OSS are little different so developers and systems administrators should face no issues. The open source community also puts in much effort to make systems presentable.
He advises businesses to evaluate their real business needs, not just accept what a vendor tells them.
“Consider all options for support from self support to community support, or even purchasing support from someone else,” he says.
Craig Green, head of IS at Public Trust, says support is important, which is why the crown entity is sticking with its existing open source CMS system and use of Novell and Linux platforms.
Among the major vendors, IBM uses OSS Eclipse to build its Websphere and Lotus Notes products. It also uses OSS for its internal plumbing such as printing infrastructure, firewalls and gateways.
IBM systems specialist Carl Klitscher says just as important is the issue of open standards. Klitscher says some customers prefer to deal with one vendor, which is why IBM offers IBM Symphony, a repackaged version of Open Office, for free download.
BMC supports OSS too. Chief software architect William Hurley says open source is becoming a driving force in the enterprise market. Projects such as Ubunto will drive open source into consumer hands, with suppliers such as Dell delivering it as a standard option on its laptops, he says.
Systems integrator Gen-i says open source is being driven by firms seeking to cut licensing costs and gain stability by adhering to open standards.
Gen-i’s service line manager for open source solutions, Steve Osborn, says this stems from growing awareness of what open source can do, coupled with a drive to cut software licensing costs.
Typically, users will dip their toes into open source waters in a trial before expanding use.
Gen-i’s open source work focuses more on web or network based tools. The systems integrator purchased Linux solutions provider Asterisk to help it in this area and also partners with Sun and Novell.
Sigurd Magnusson, marketing manager for Silverstripe, which supplies an open source CMS system, says licensing is a driver of OSS adoption. OSS is strongest in website, internet and email infrastructure, but it is broadening its appeal quickly.
Security is also better as a wider community can fix issues faster than mainstream developers, he says. But OSS developers don’t have the budgets to market themselves.
Furthermore, OSS also tends to lack the documentation for self-installation by businesses, but OSS developers tend to be more skilful as they will have learnt to do things by pulling the source-code apart, meaning their knowledge is often a lot deeper.
Magnusson recommends potential OSS users look at open source first, and use proprietary software only after being convinced they need to by going through a list of requirements.
Silverstripe CMS customer Tim Von Dazelden, director of Kiwiselect, prefers open source because users get the benefit of lots of people all over the world adding to it. Kiwiselect has used Silverstripe for over two years, including for its personal insurance website inform.co.nz.
“You get a lot of bang for your buck,” Von Dazelden says.
Another user, Flexible Learning, is a software developer in the education and training sector, using open source tools for development.
“Its about having empowerment and flexibility and total cost of ownership,” director Richard Wyles says of OSS.
“Its an engine for innovation. Something New Zealand can compete on is the strength of its ideas rather than an aggregation of capital,” he says.
Five open source software developers
Developer of the Silverstripe content management (CMS) framework used by 200 websites including that of the Democratic Party National Convention and New Zealand-based Inform Insurance.
Catalyst IT, Wellington
Developer of CRM and CMS, plus the Mahara blogging and social networking tool (www.mahara.org). Customers include Telecom, Fairfax, the Chief Electoral Office and Plumbing World.
Michael Koziarski, www.koziarski.com
Wellington-based core developer of Ruby on Rails, increasingly the platform of choice for web developers globally. “Koz” is well known internationally and was a recipient of an inaugural New Zealand Open Source Award last year.
Rob O’Callahan, weblogs.mozillazine.org/roc/
O’Callahan is the leader of the Gecko rendering engine which sits at the heart of the Firefox web browser.
He works for the Mozilla foundation, having moved back to New Zealand a couple of years ago, and heads up a team of developers in Auckland putting “clever goodness” into Firefox.
Chris Cormack, www.koha.org
Cormack has been working on Koha, the world’s leading open source library system since its inception in 2000.
Originally built for the Horewhenua District Library, Koha, like Catalyst IT’s Mahara, has been adopted worldwide.
It has a mature development community which has been nurtured and led by Cormack for eight years.