SAP keeps watchful eye on open source

SAP keeps watchful eye on open source

The entire concept of making code freely accessible for others to view, use and even modify would appear to clash totally with the commercial software strategy of SAP. So why is the world's largest vendor of business software so interested in open source?

That was a question being silently mumbled by a few software experts in the coffee breaks at the Open Source Forum backed by Hasso Plattner, SAP's billionaire cofounder.

And the answers gleaned from a few of these experts were two-fold: open source is a threat to proprietary software; but it's also an opportunity.

SAP needs to keep abreast of what the open-source community is doing, because the open community approach to developing software will play a huge role in the future and will impact proprietary software, according to Adam Jollans, open-source software strategy manager at IBM.

"SAP must be prepared for the next big technology, and that could be open-source software," Jollans says. "IT is changing very fast. Big players like SAP can be beaten by companies with new ideas. SAP knows this."

But it's not only open-source startups that the German vendor needs to have on its radar screen; it's also arch-rival Oracle, according to Don Wight, vice president of worldwide field operations at open-source business intelligence software vendor JasperSoft.

"SAP has to be wondering what Oracle is planning in the open-source space, especially after its recent acquisition of Sleepycat," he says. "Even if Sleepycat isn't a big fish, it's certainly part of a larger strategy."

Where open source stands on SAP's priority list remains anyone's guess, but it is on that list and appears to be inching upwards.

"There is certainly a trend in the open-source space, and we're investing," says Jai Das, a partner in SAP Ventures, the company's venture capital arm, which is in California.

SAP Ventures has already invested in several open-source companies including MySQL AB, Black Duck Software and Zend Technologies, as well as social communications and wiki company Socialtext.

But where open source fits into SAP's long-term strategy is a well-kept secret, and understandably so.

For a company that generates billions of dollars in revenue by marrying customers to its commercial software, a move to open its code and let the open-source community peek inside and even offer some of its code for free would certainly raise a few eyebrows among investors.

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