Open Source Big Iron Still Wanting

While the open source movement has spawned some very successful enterprise-grade software over the years (Apache, JBoss, MySQL, etc.), most of these packages have been aimed at the infrastructure, database and middleware tier. End-user applications like CRM and ERP are only now making it into the mainstream and, as yet, have little support from companies the way Linux, for example, is supported by RedHat or Novell (SuSE).

Currently, only SugarCRM and Compiere (ERP/CRM) for general business and MedSphere for healthcare have services companies springing up around the code to offer maintenance and support. And these packages, while considered to be good, are really for small- to medium-sized businesses (SMB), said Martin Fink, vice president and general manager of Hewlett Packard’s Linux organization and author of The Business and Economics of Linux and Open Source.

“The open-source application space, like SugarCRM and Compiere, are fairly new in the evolution of open source and I don’t have enough data to call them proven solutions yet,” he said. “I don’t think they’re at the stage, if you’re a big multinational and you want to replace SAP with this, I wouldn’t say they’re at that stage yet.”

But, if you have the in-house talent to look at the code and determine if its functionality and features will work for, say, a single business unit deployment, then either package may be a good fit, said Con Zymaris, CEO of CyberSource, an Australian Linux/Unix consultancy.

“If SugarCRM or Compiere, etc., delivers 80 percent of the functionality you need, then why not use it as the basis of your solution?” said Zymaris. “Why not leverage that totally viable code base and greatly reduce your risk of project cost and time overruns? Something like SugarCRM is a high-class solution which can compete toe-to-toe with some very high-priced alternatives.”

As time goes by, these applications will eventually find a way into the enterprise just as Linux has done, said Colin Bodell, CTO of VA Software, which owns and operates, perhaps the largest open-source collaboration site on the Internet.

Also, major vendors of enterprise-class applications like IBM, Computer Associates, Sun, Oracle, etc. are very active in the open source space; contributing code and paying in-house developers to work on open-source projects, said Bodell.

Add to this mix all the corporate IT folks that keep an eye out for useful bits of code, and it is only a matter of time before successful open-source applications begin to chip away at the market share of mainstream ISVs.

“These companies are paying a lot of attention because if they could save even just one or two percent of their annualized cost on a package from SAP or Siebel, that saving could run into the tens, if not hundreds, of millions-of-dollars over the life of the application,” he said.

Outside of the packages mentioned above, there are all manner of non-supported applications from email to project collaboration that can be found in the open-source community. And, of course, the Mozilla project, which recently released its Microsoft-like browser, FireFox. Since its general release in November 2004, over 25 million users have downloaded the software.

But, for the most part, many of these applications, while good, are not up to enterprise standards, said IDC analyst Dennis Byron. “It comes down to what you want to do from an enterprise perspective,” he said. “You can’t turn a VW into a Ferrari, nor can you turn Jonas (an open-source Web server) into (BEA’s) WebLogic.”

The general consensus is most open-source applications are not yet a threat to the established enterprise software vendors of today, but soon there will be another Linux or Apache that comes along and does for end-users what those applications have done for IT infrastructure.

“It’s early days but you can see the trend forward,” said Bodell. “My message to anybody is take a look at these things. They may not be right for you today, but keep an eye on them because, at some point in the future, if they keep going the way they are going, they will be suitable for you.”