Open-source advice abounds at LinuxWorld

Vendors give advice on implementing non-proprietary software

Still looking for ideas for bringing some Linux and other open-source applications to your company?

At the recent LinuxWorld OpenSolutions Summit in New York, experts have been advising attendees on what to look for and how to evaluate choices, and offering their real-world experiences with deploying open-source software inside their own operations.

As open-source software has moved away from the margins and into the hearts of corporate datacentres — and corporate IT thinking — in recent years, it has systematically gained new converts and interest.

That doesn’t mean one size fits all, or even that open-source solutions are a fix for all existing IT problems, incompatibilities and shortcomings. Instead, open-source applications should be seen as one part of a company’s overall IT portfolio.

That’s the opinion of Andy Astor, CEO and president of EnterpriseDB, an open-source database vendor in New Jersey.

“It’s just a hammer,” Astor says of open-source applications. “It will not build your house alone.”

For corporate IT departments, open source and Linux can be sensible choices, he says. But using both still requires the same due diligence and research needed when selecting what proprietary software to deploy.

“Don’t forget how to run a project,” Astor says. “Open source doesn’t change that — don’t get sloppy.”

Costs for evaluation, testing, deployment and support will likely be similar for open source and proprietary applications. Real cost savings will be for licences, which can save 5% to 25% of a product’s total cost of ownership, Astor says.

“Projects are difficult. They’re large. They’re complex. Open-source projects are no different,” he says.

Where open-source applications can shine in corporate IT environments is in software features and easy customisation, he says. Corporate users care less about seeing the code than about getting quality software that works and is supported by a large community of open-source developers who are responsive to making fixes, improvements and other needed changes.

If you are paying for support for your open-source applications, make sure that your support vendor has staff members who are active members of the open-source communities that maintain and develop your software, Astor says.

“Be sure your vendor is a ‘joiner’ so they have the expertise,” he says.

Starting in 2004, Novell began moving all of its IT infrastructure to Linux. Getting there took a lot of thought, discussion and communication with the employees who would use the applications and the developers who would deal with them, says Debra Anderson, CIO of the Utah-based vendor, which acquired Suse Linux in 2003. Novell began a transition to Linux on the desktop and in its datacentres back in 2004 as a part of a natural progression after the Suse purchase.

Novell started the changeover slowly, by moving internal users first to the open-source OpenOffice.org Version 1.0 office productivity suite. By 2005, the company had moved some 87% of its users to Novell Linux Desktop Version 9.

To make the transition easier, about 54% of the users were allowed to keep Microsoft Windows on their machines with dual-boot capabilities, she says. Along the way, the changes were explained and done step-by-step to increase familiarity and comfort for users and IT staff.

By moving deliberately, Novell could see bottlenecks as they arose and deal with them immediately, she says. One example was when laptop users found that Novell Linux Desktop Version 9 didn’t include built-in wireless capabilities — a big impediment.

So Novell built it, and it was added to the operating system, making it available for internal users and customers alike, Anderson says.

By 2006, Novell began to roll out the more enterprise-centric Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop Version 10, while moving users over to the more full-featured Version 2 of OpenOffice.org software.

As the transition continued at Novell, internal software developers were encouraged to learn new skills and languages to work with open-source applications, Anderson says.

“They had to be willing to go backwards [sometimes], to accept a product that temporarily has features that are inferior to proprietary products until you contribute the changes” back to the open-source project, she says.

Linux was also moved into the company’s datacentre, with some 47% of the servers now running the operating system, she says.

Those moves have saved Novell millions in support costs over proprietary applications, she says, and have resulted in higher employee satisfaction, based on internal surveys.

When the idea of moving to Linux and open source was raised several years ago, some initial reactions were that it wouldn’t be possible to do, Anderson says.

“Frankly, it was possible, and it wasn’t that hard to do,” she says.

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