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It's Raining Code! (Hallelujah?)

It's Raining Code! (Hallelujah?)

As open-source development options proliferate, CIOs are finding ways to make it work for their organizations

Reader ROI

  • Why CIOs are growing more interested in open source
  • How some CIOs are banding together in software development cooperatives
  • Why some vendors are releasing product code to the open-source world

The next time you have a project in need of a software solution, try an experiment. Go to open-source collaboration site SourceForge (www.sourceforge.net), and spend five minutes running a search. The odds are good that you'll find an open-source project related to your problem. Free. No sales calls. No negotiations with vendors.

Granted, no service contracts or tech-support numbers either, most likely. But given the low barrier to entry, it's easy to understand why thousands of companies are tempted to use open source for, at the least, those projects that fall shy of the mission-critical line. And for those CIOs nervous about the support and licensing issues that surround open source, well-known vendors are increasingly releasing some of their own code to the open-source community. IBM, for example, in January released 500 of its software patents to open-source software developers. Sun has announced that it will release its Solaris operating system under an open-source licence.

Of course, if you're looking at open source precisely because you want to get away from those very vendors, maybe there's a better alternative: a cooperative of like-minded, open-source-loving CIOs just waiting for you to join. The options for using open source have never been greater, and you owe it to yourself - and your company - to take a close look.

Power of Cooperation

One of the challenges of using open source is simply finding a product that meets your needs and your quality standards. While many developers need an e-mail client or Web browser (hence, the rabid developer base for open-source projects such as Mozilla's Thunderbird and FireFox), finding a spontaneously developed tool to integrate your three retail-specific supply chain applications isn't as likely. And even if your SourceForge search uncovered such a tool, there's no guarantee that the developers wrote it with the care your enterprise requires. (To at least partially address this concern, VA Software offers SourceForge Enterprise Edition (SFEE), which helps developers create shared code environments among known collaborators, and the Tapestry portal, which lets Enterprise Edition users access information about other SFEE projects.) Plus there's the "where did this code really come from" legal question. To assuage these fears, some organizations have turned to cooperation with peers for their open-source development.

One of the most high-profile examples is the Avalanche Corporate Technology Cooperative, a collective development effort founded by a group of Minnesota-based companies, including Best Buy, Cargill and Jostens. Just over a year ago, the group formed to identify opportunities for open-source development projects that could benefit all the members. The goal of this cooperative is to pool resources so that interested companies can jump into new projects while spreading out the risks and expenses. Some of the members, for instance, are too small to create full-blown development efforts on projects such as building an open-source desktop reference environment, but by combining efforts, they can all reap the rewards. Avalanche currently has a half-dozen projects under way, including one to create a reference design for an open-source desktop and another to build a business activity monitoring engine.

"We're relative novices in the whole open-source area," says Mike Thyken, senior vice president and CIO at bedding manufacturer and Avalanche member Select Comfort. "We started looking at everything it was going to take to get a Linux/open-source world put together, and we saw that it was very redundant between companies."

So Select Comfort joined Avalanche, contributing a membership fee of $US30,000 as well as some time from technical architecture experts inside the company to Avalanche's Linux reference environment project. As a result, Select Comfort expected to receive deliverables on a Linux desktop and server architecture early in 2005, all for a "fairly modest" investment of money and time, Thyken says - far less than if the company had attempted the project on its own.

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