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Open source - customer choice

Open source - customer choice

Brian J Dooley reports on the range of opportunities available to resellers in open source technology

Open source software is available for free, along with its source code, and it has developed its own substantial following since the early days of computing. The best known implementations are in infrastructure areas, with the well-known Linux, Java, and PHP packages. Recently, it has gained added attention due to its central role in cloud IT, and through the growing Linux-based Android ecosystem. There are many open source programs available, and there is major support from companies such as IBM and Red Hat. Well known applications include the Mozilla web browser, LibreOffice, Pentaho, WordPress, Moodle, Drupal, and SugarCRM ; but these are just the tip of the iceberg.

For resellers, open source presents a range of possibilities and challenges. The model is less well understood by potential customers, and there is less market visibility for most products. Resellers also need to understand the advantages of open source in customisation and cost. It is also important to understand and work with open source communities, and abide by the licences — which require sharing of code modifications, if released in products. Resellers also need to understand and be able to work within a profit model which focuses upon service and support rather than upon licensing.

Open source is alive and well in New Zealand, and benefits from an active development community that is helping to develop some key products. As cloud computing continues to develop its strong open source base, its use in SaaS applications is growing.

Red Hat provides a broad range of open source offerings around operating platforms, middleware, virtualisation, cloud and management in the New Zealand marketplace.

“Tight budgets accelerate the adoption of open source technologies,” says country manager, Craig Nielsen. “Organisations are under pressure to reduce capex and opex, and as such are looking at open source as one of the mechanisms to reduce costs.”

Red Hat’s software development model relies on active sponsorship of several leading open source projects. These projects allow the company to develop solutions collaboratively with its partners and customers. The company’s best known community involvement is with the Fedora (Linux) and JBoss projects. These projects, along with others such as GlusterFS for storage and oVirt for enterprise virtualisation, provide freely-available software as well as the technology foundation of Red Hat’s commercial products.

Open source is in the foundation for cloud computing with 90 percent of clouds being open source based. This is providing a new impetus for adoption.

“Red Hat is helping businesses, governments, and service providers build clouds today with standard products such as Red Hat Enterprise Virtualisation, Red Hat Enterprise MRG, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and JBoss Enterprise Middleware as well as a wide range of consulting and education offerings,” says Nielsen.

For resellers, Nielsen stressed the need to understand the special needs of this sector. “Customers want their service providers and resellers to provide them with innovation and options that make financial and technology sense,” he says. “The channel needs to have a clear understanding of how risk averse organisations wish to consume open source technologies and how to integrate those technologies in specific use cases.”

Egressive is an Christchurch based open source software developer. “We provide a set of products which are specific well defined business IT systems, all built with open source software, which have tremendous scope for customising to a particular customer's requirements,” says director, Dave Lane. Lane is also president of the NZ Open Source Society.

Egressive product offerings include VOIP phone systems (hardware and software) and website content management system (CMS) platforms configured for small businesses, schools, and government departments

“In general, FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) does quite well in a recession,” says Lane. “It offers better value and greater flexibility. It is increasingly being seen as a safer, lower hassle option.”

Open source was particularly useful during the Christchurch quake, according to Lane. “Some people were back up and running quickly, but weren't able to work because they didn't have their licence keys, and had to wait days or even weeks to get them. Many installed open source alternatives in the interim...and then found they were preferable.”

Lane believes that government will be a key factor in priming the open source market, as it has been in other countries. “As soon as the Ministry of Education fully embraces open source, the whole game will change,” he says. “Embrace it they will, because in the government's current cost cutting frenzy, they will find that there is simply no valid business case to justify the high price of proprietary software licences for the vast majority of school applications.”

Another enabler is virtualisation. “Virtualisation greatly lowers the barriers to having heterogeneous infrastructure environments,” says Lane. “Businesses can now more easily dip their toes into the open source waters, adding Linux-based web and intranet, firewalls, monitoring systems, backup solutions, Voice over IP Phone systems or fileservers.”

Android is also lending a credibility to open source, although views on whether it is ‘true Linux’. “Android is creating a broad and deep ecosystem and is the natural choice for supporting infrastructure and mechanisms for managing and interoperating with Android devices,” says Lane. “Android applications also tend to be open source and create a nice vector into many business applications.”

Among the key open source applications that interest Egressive are:

  • Moodle/Mahara learning management systems for use in schools
  • WordPress/Joomla/Drupal/RubyOnRails/Django/Node.js platforms
  • The web Raspberry Pi Linux computer that fits in your palm and costs US$35
  • LibreOffice, office suite.

“FOSS vendors tend to be small and fast moving companies, and generally have lower profit margins because they have less ‘lock-in’ over their customers,” says Lane. “This leads to greater competition within the FOSS market, less resource to throw at marketing and completing expensive tenders”

The result of this, Lane believes, is a disadvantage for open source firms competing for government tenders. This needs to be fixed by changing the tendering process to make it friendlier to local open source providers.

Egressive is also involved with development for key open source platforms, working with Drupal, Ruby on Rails, and many other projects. The company contributes modules, bug fixes, assistance on forums and mailing lists, building and making available full-blown software applications under FOSS licenses, as well as organising and sponsoring events, and advocating open source adoption.

“Resellers need to know the economics of open source products and projects, and the behaviour of vendors is quite different from that of traditional proprietary software vendors,” says Lane.”The incentives and motivations of FOSS vendors are quite different from the proprietary world. This is quite disconcerting for many resellers. Resellers have to be prepared to alter their approaches and learn a lot of new things.”

According to Lane, open source is on a roll. “The proliferation of Linux-based devices is only starting. They're already everywhere - car computers, ADSL and wi-fi routers, and most other embedded devices. Soon they'll be so inexpensive that they'll become ubiquitous. Raspberry Pi is but the first of a wave of new low-cost devices which will change people's expectation of what a computer is, and will undercut proprietary margins and business models in fundamental ways.”

3months is a Wellington based web development company specialising in Agile, Ruby on Rails development. “We are a pure services company that uses an end to end open source software stack to create leading edge, mission critical cloud based applications for clients all over world,” says director Mark Pascall. “Our recent project for Toyota USA was a great example of open source and cloud computing coming together to create something that could scale to Super Bowl traffic levels. We used an end to end open source stack (Linux, Postgress, Ruby on Rails) and hosted on a massive Amazon EC2 server infrastructure (using over 40 EC2 server instances at peak).

“The reality is that many of the most successful SaaS/PaaS cloud products have been built in part or entirely using open source technologies. The companies behind these SaaS products will therefore continue to invest heavily in these open source projects. “

According to Pascall, vendors can gain a number of important adantages from working on Open Source projects. These include:

  • Tapping in to a worldwide community of passionate and motivated developers.
  • Tapping in to a worldwide marketplace of functionality built by passionate and motivated developers

Pascall also believes that open data and open APIs will become more important than open source, as applications move to the cloud. “The increased standardisation of API's such as REST/SOAP means that cloud computing now gives us a model where organisations can expose data and functionality very easily. We believe there are huge opportunities for organisations and entrepreneurs to come together to create value by combining this data and functionality.”

Anderson.net is an Auckland-based consultancy and open source developer run by Dave Anderson. “I personally contribute to several different open source software projects and am the primary developer of several packages available for the xTuple open source ERP software,” says Anderson. “On the services side, my team is pretty much full time supporting open source in several businesses.”

Anderson sees Linux or Apache gaining greater popularity, but notes that there are many open source applications that would benefit New Zealand businesses if they were willing to try them, and if there was available support.

Among key FOSS projects, Anderson counts Ubuntu Linux. “This is open source that provides a beautiful and easy to use desktop for all users,” he says. “Ubuntu Server is gaining in popularity on the cloud and in the server room. Ubuntu TV and Ubuntu on Android are truly exciting projects. Another interesting project is Raspberry Pi, an open source hardware project.”

Virtualisation has been an enabler of open source. “Virtualisation allows easy install and setup of open source solutions. You do not need specific technical or application knowledge to get started with Virtual Machines (VMs), so this increases adoption. There are already many VM appliances available. These are complete open source server environments available online from sources such as Bitnami.”

Although open source continues to gain momentum, there are still some significant factors holding it back. “A key issue is fear of the unknown,” says Anderson. “Businesses fear trying software that has limited support. This is easily resolved by choosing the software wisely (as should be done in any case), and looking for commercially supported open source, or for software with easily available support.”


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