Open source applications: More than just Linux

Open source applications and development tools cover a spectrum ranging from databases to office productivity suites. This fifth installment of our Open Source Reseller Services Hot Spot Tutorial introduces you to applications other than Linux and gives you tools to use when considering open source application options.

Even though "open source" means "Linux" for many people, there are many other open source applications. Open source applications are used at every level of the application stack -- from databases to server-run applications such as enterprise content management (ECM) and customer relationship management (CRM), all the way up to the Firefox Web browser.

In the last installment of this open source guide, we reviewed the opportunities that the Linux operating system affords consultants and system integrators (SIs). In this article, we'll look at the applications a bit higher in the stack.

Open source is strongest at the more fundamental layers of the stack, according to analysts -- in development tools and applications such as databases and Web servers. For these applications, as with Linux, the main benefit is their lower cost relative to closed source software.

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Only a small portion of open source applications in enterprises are higher-stack applications, such as ECM, CRM or enterprise resource planning (ERP) programs -- IDC estimates that only 10% of open source software in use in IT departments fits in that category. But because these applications work more closely with your clients' business process, their open source nature can give you a greater advantage if you need to modify them for better integration with your client's infrastructure or workflow.

As with any open source application, choosing a vendor can be crucial. Concerns about support are one of the biggest inhibitors to adoption of open source, but vendors try to fill that gap.

If you use Red Hat for Linux, the Red Hat Exchange (RHX) is worth looking into. RHX is Red Hat's "one-stop shop" for open source software and allows you not only to browse projects, but to purchase subscriptions to them through Red Hat. RHX could be helpful for you if you're just getting started and want a partner in sorting through your options.

Open source software covers a wide spectrum -- practically any piece of software has an open source alternative, right down to your iPod's operating system. But just like in the closed source world, open source applications can be broken into categories, each with its front runners. The following list is by no means comprehensive; there are many more technologies than we can itemize, and each we do list has more projects than we cover below -- some larger, some smaller. But here are some of the main categories for IT-managed software and their largest projects. Except where noted, the following list looks exclusively at vendor-backed projects; in those cases, each project below is backed by a vendor of the same name.

Databases

If your client's applications use databases that aren't embedded into them, an open source database can be a great way to save money, especially in noncritical situations. The main open source database project is MySQL, though PostgreSQL is also popular. Microsoft SQL Server users beware -- these projects are usually pronounced with the letters spelled out, rather than as "sequel." So it's "my S-Q-L" and "postgress-Q-L" (though the "Q-L" is often dropped for PostgreSQL).

Web servers

If you're looking to host Web sites, there's really only one name in town for open source: Apache. Apache isn't just the most popular Web server for open source, it's the most popular overall; almost half of all Web sites are hosted on Apache, though its market share is losing ground to Microsoft's ISS. No company owns Apache's code, but Covalent Technologies of Walnut Creek, Calif., is a preeminent support company for Apache and is often regarded as its unofficial vendor.

Application servers

With the rise of service-oriented architecture (SOA), the app servers that provide the middleware for much of SOA are getting a fair amount of press. The main project is JBoss, which was acquired in 2006 by Red Hat, based in Raleigh, N.C. IBM also has an open source version of its middleware, IBM Websphere Community Edition.

Customer relationship management (CRM)

Open source CRM is somewhat between a rock and a hard place -- large enterprises often spring for SAP CRM or Siebel, while small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) often think of Software as a Service (SaaS) provider Salesforce.com. But if your customers are looking for another option, there are two main vendors for open source CRM. SugarCRM is targeted more for SMBs, while Centric CRM often goes after larger companies. Both allow you to deploy the software on your clients' servers or host it as SaaS.

Development tools

Unless your clients are themselves programmers, you may not be selling them development tools. But since you'll need them for your own work, it's worth noting the Eclipse development platform, a popular open source IDE. Eclipse doesn't have a vendor or commercial version, but the project is directed by the Eclipse Foundation. Of course, there are also many popular open source implementations of programming languages, including Java, PHP and Perl.

Enterprise content management (ECM)

ECM is one of the more successful higher-stack technologies in open source, and the main project is Alfresco. ECM is an especially good technology for open source because each company's needs differ so much, according to Michael Goulde, senior analyst with Forrester Research. That means the ability to modify the code can help you match your customer's specs more easily, he said.

Enterprise resource planning (ERP)

Like their CRM kin, open source ERP applications face a crowded field, with Oracle and SAP dominating among large enterprises. If you want to give your clients a cheaper alternative, though, the biggest project for open source ERP is Compiere.

Office productivity suites

When it comes to the software that non-IT folks use to get work done, Microsoft is clearly the 800-pound gorilla. Getting people to learn and use another suite generally requires a bit of coaxing, and a significant business case. That said, governments are pushing to use open, standards-based software, so open source office productivity suites have some opportunity there.

Open source office suites aren't as tightly integrated as Microsoft Office. The main program for documents, spreadsheets and presentations is OpenOffice.org, but that doesn't do email. Like Eclipse, OpenOffice.org is not owned by a vendor. For email, a couple of the major projects are Mozilla's Thunderbird and Evolution, which Novell sells but which is also available as a community edition. All of these applications are available for Windows and MacOS as well as Linux, although Evolution doesn't yet run on Windows Vista and OpenOffice.org's Mac version is a separate branch, NeoOffice.

On the back end, Zimbra provides an email server and Web-based client that is compatible with Microsoft Outlook and Exchange, as well as open source applications.

This was first published in October 2007

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