Strategic choices in open source: Technology, application integration options

Find your place in the open source ecosystem by examining your technology and integration options with this Hot Spot Tutorial on open source reseller services.

The defining characteristic of open source applications is that they're distributed along with their source code, so you're able to build your own version. This can make it easier for you, as a systems integrator (SI), to integrate the applications into your client's existing infrastructure. Now that you know about some of the opportunities to provide support for open source projects, let's take a look at how to find your place in the ecosystem and take on open source application integration work.

If you're new to open source, it's probably best to start with a technology near the top of the software stack you currently support, according to Dave Gynn, director of enterprise tools and frameworks at Optaros Inc., a Boston SI that specializes in open source software. For instance, a firm that works with enterprise content management (ECM) should focus more on an ECM product like Alfresco , rather than working with Linux or the MySQL database. At that level, you're probably more knowledgeable about what needs to be tweaked, and you won't need to worry as much about changes breaking dependent applications.

Although open source is starting to come into play at companies of all sizes, it's strongest in enterprise-level infrastructure and development, said Matt Lawton, director of Framingham, Mass.-based IDC's Open Source Software Business Strategies research program. In the United States, Lawton said, 65% of open source applications that companies reported using were application development tools, including databases; 25% were infrastructure programs such as Web servers and the Linux operating system; and 10% were applications higher on the stack.

All three sectors have good growth potential, Lawton said. While Linux is already well-established, Lawton said IDC research shows it as one of just two operating systems whose market share is expected to increase by 2011 -- Windows being the other. And open source applications are just starting to come into enterprises, but Lawton said demand for them will probably increase as the applications mature and companies learn more about them. More technically advanced SIs could be an important part of that process, building on existing projects to create strong applications for their customer base, Lawton said.

On the other hand, the cost of customization and support associated with open source is still a barrier for many small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), according to Raven Zachary, The 451 Group's research director for open source, in Portland, Ore.

"[Open source adoption among SMBs] has been growing very slowly, and I think if you look at the opportunity for Software as a Service [SaaS] and you look at the opportunity for open source, Software as a Service has a better opportunity in the [SMB] market," Zachary said. That's because SMBs tend to put less emphasis on customization, and more on the ease of deployment that most SaaS products deliver, he said.

But if your clients can afford it -- or if your goal is to provide open source application integration services for a niche -- diving into the code a bit can make it easier to adapt the software to your client's specific needs. Several SIs said most projects don't require many changes to existing programs -- but that when the need arises, having that option is significant.

"In some cases the customer has some very specific processes, and you really want to fit the software to the process and not the other way around," said Stephan Keller, CEO at Sodexis Inc., an SI in Chesterfield, Va., that works with Compiere, an open source ERP application. That can be a good selling point, especially for companies that need to integrate old legacy systems, Keller said.

And even if you don't tinker with an application's source code, the nature of open source projects makes them easier to integrate with one another, said Reuven Cohen, serial innovator and chief technologist at Enomaly Open Source Consulting, a Toronto-based consulting firm that specializes in content management systems.

Many open source applications are built on top of other open source applications, and to make the pieces work together, programs tend to be written to work with open standards -- which also make integrating with other applications within an IT department easier, Cohen said.

At a certain point, it might even be in your interest to give back to the community. Some SIs are considering releasing their own, in-house software as open source, as a way to reduce development costs by allowing others -- including VARs and consultants -- to improve the software. Optaros is looking into that option, Gynn said, and Lawton said Accenture has already begun this process.

"They are now looking to leverage the open source community that is developing around Spring Batch [a programming framework for enterprise Java applications], and they feel that is going to stimulate things for them on the services side of things," Lawton said.

While it may seem counterintuitive to give your competitors that edge, Gynn and Lawton said it could actually help you by spreading your own research and development costs among the community. Instead of reinventing the wheel, SIs who collaborate on building tools together could focus on their core competencies -- services such as customization and application integration.

"Open source really swept in and made software companies rethink how things are going, and consulting companies haven't had that kind of shakeup yet," Gynn said. "I think anyone who can compete shouldn't be afraid to go out there and collaborate -- and maybe get the benefit of someone else's work as well."

In the last sections of this series, we'll zoom in on some specific open source technologies -- where they are on the adoption curve, what's driving them and what some of the major projects are. We'll start off with the Linux operating system, which is one of the oldest and most well-established open source projects in the IT world.

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