5 stars of open-source products

If you're not using these tools, you may be missing out

Once a curiosity of computer rooms, open-source software applications are now giving commercial programs a run for their money in public-sector information technology shops.

In fact, public-sector IT managers say free licensing isn't necessarily the most attractive characteristic of the best open-source products today. Many stand out for their stable programming code and array of useful features or, conversely, their stripped-down feature sets that eliminate unnecessary bells and whistles.

"Open-source products tend to be driven by what features the user base is actually asking for vs. those being determined by a commercial software company's profit motives," said Richard Monson-Haefel, senior analyst at the Burton Group, a technology consulting firm.

Another open-source advantage is freedom from vendor dependency, the seemingly continuous treadmill of upgrades and uncertainties that can be expensive and potentially disruptive to an agency's daily operations.

"With open source, there's no company that's going to take the source code away if they fold or get bought out," said Peter Gallagher, president of Development InfoStructure, a consulting firm.

Of course, nothing guarantees open-source success. The universe of products is large and code quality varies from impressive to unreliable.

But if IT managers choose the open-source community's top products, they will find many solid programs that meet or exceed the capabilities of more expensive commercial alternatives, experts say.

The top open-source programs in the public sector mirror those favored by commercial companies, said Michael Goulde, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. Many of them fall within the ubiquitous "LAMP" product set: Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP, an operating system, Web server, database and scripting language, respectively.

Here is a closer look at five open-source products and why they are winning favor in government IT shops.

Apache

Almost 50 million Web sites worldwide use the Apache Web server as their foundation, which gives the technology a market share of nearly 70 percent, according to Netcraft, an Internet services company based in Bath, England, in its latest Web Server Survey. Apache's closest competitor is Microsoft's Internet Information Services (IIS) with about 20 percent of the market, Netcraft said.

What drives Apache's popularity? "It's fast and it's customizable," said Rich Morrow, a senior database architect at Lockheed Martin Space Operations, a contractor for NASA's Advanced Life Support branch at the Ames Research Center. Morrow works on NASA's Online Project Information System program, which is building an Apache-based intranet for researchers developing life-support technology for use in future manned moon and Mars missions.

Another plus is reliability, said Jim Willis, e-government and IT director of Rhode Island's Office of the Secretary of State.

"Stability initially led us to Apache," he said. "We had been constantly fighting the IIS servers, and maybe we just didn't have the mental bandwidth to know how to manage IIS to be stable. I do know that after migrating to Apache, the amount of time we spend managing our Web servers has decreased significantly. We now have much more time to do productive work rather than triage work."

JBoss

This Java-compliant application server, which is responsible for housing and managing an organization's applications, provides another essential back-end component of IT infrastructures.

The Naval Air System Command (Navair) has been running JBoss for about a year to publish Web sites for the Aviation Data Management and Control System (ADMACS) program for aircraft carriers. The sites include maintenance, air-traffic control and on-ship aircraft location data.

Before choosing JBoss, Navair evaluated several commercial application servers, including offerings from BEA Systems, IBM and Sun Microsystems. Navair chose the open-source candidate because of its strengths in complying with Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition and its capabilities with regard to system failover, load-balancing, security and integration with Oracle databases.

"I asked the team not to consider cost initially, just rate which application server comes out the highest technically," said Tim Woolverton, an ADMACS program manager. "We came up with a list of the top five, with JBoss right up there. When we started factoring in cost, JBoss went right to the top."

Woolverton also liked the open-source option because it alleviated fears of Navair depending on a vendor.

"We are planning our applications for the next generation of aircraft carriers, which won't come out until 2015," Woolverton said. "Suppose a commercial vendor goes out of business. We would have to redesign our software to go with some other application. By going with an open-source product, we believed it would be less expensive" to make adjustments in the future.

MySQL

This open-source database management program, created by two Swedish developers in the 1990s, has more than 5 million users worldwide. Morrow said MySQL offers a speed benefit compared with commercial database programs for some applications.

"Out of the box, MySQL tends to run faster than Oracle for the most common types of queries that we do on the Web, which are 'selects,' where you are pulling information out of the database not putting data in," he said.

Morrow also gives MySQL high marks for its flexibility. "You can easily customize everything" to fit individual requirements, he said. With a commercial package, customization may not be possible if it affects the core operation of the program, he added.

"If something doesn't work on the commercial side, you have to wait for the next release," he said. "That's just unacceptable."

OpenOffice

The OpenOffice suite, backed by a community organized by Sun in 2000, provides a set of office productivity programs, including a word processor, spreadsheet generator and presentation program, that brings open-source advantages to a software market dominated by Microsoft.

OpenOffice's strengths include support for multiple computing platforms and spoken languages, and, in an upcoming release now in beta testing, default support for the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards' OpenDocument file format based on Extensible Markup Language.

In part because of the latter capability, Massachusetts recently announced that it plans to use applications built around the OpenDocument format and wean itself from proprietary document formats, including .doc and others used in Microsoft Office.

In a statement, the commonwealth's chief information officer, Peter Quinn, said open document formats are important "for the current and future accessibility of government records."

File format compatibility could prompt other public-sector CIOs to consider similar moves, said Murugan Pal, founder and chief technology officer of SpikeSource, which sells combinations of open-source products and support licenses.

"Two hundred years from now, organizations won't want to be paying software royalties just so they can read documents that were formatted in a variety of old formats," he said.

Even if OpenDocument isn't the prevailing format years from now, developers will be able to easily create tools that understand it, he said. "The moment a format is not owned commercially, anybody can create an interpreter to read that format," he added.

Willis said he believes future readability isn't only a technical consideration. "As a steward of electronic data for our citizens, it pains me to see data stored in proprietary formats," he said.

"As soon as a state employee hits the Save button, they're imposing a tax on the citizens. [OpenDocument] could be a saving grace," Willis added. "If vendors don't pick up the format, hopefully they will hear an outcry from citizens, like the Stamp Tax."

Microsoft has said its next Office release will support OpenDocument, but not natively, which means users would have to select that format option every time they save a file.

PHP

Public-sector technology experts say simplicity and efficiency are two of the top benefits of PHP, a general-purpose scripting language that moves data from databases to Web servers, among other jobs.

Morrow said he was one of PHP's earliest users back in the 1990s. "To be honest, it couldn't do a whole lot back then," he said, but he added that the scripting language has steadily evolved. "Plus, the fact that it's being compiled as an Apache module adds so much speed."

Willis said simplicity makes the transition to PHP easy. "Ramp-up time is trivial," he said.

Reliability is another plus. "Early on in the adoption of open source, many people were concerned about support. It's the classic, 'Who's throat can I choke?' question," said Andrew Aitken, managing partner of the Olliance Group, a management consulting firm that specializes in open source. "Now a number of commercial entities provide that service."

Joch is a business and technology writer based in New England. He can be reached at ajoch@monad.net.

Four more contenders

The universe of effective open-source products isn't limited to five standouts. Information technology experts say the following four free programs could be important components in an open-source arsenal.

  • Firefox Web browser. "You can open tabs in Firefox that let you see multiple Web sites just by clicking through the tabs," said Douglas Levin, chief executive officer of Black Duck Software. "It's a wonderful feature."
  • Jetspeed information portal. "This can be the basis for many self-service applications for internal employee information or externally in e-government applications," said Murugan Pal, founder and chief technology officer of SpikeSource. The software uses standard Java and Extensible Markup Language to manage data.
  • SugarCRM customer resource management software. "It offers many basic features that are attractive to people" without overloading users with unnecessary capabilities, Levin said.
  • Wiki collaboration software. This server-based tool lets people use their Web browsers to quickly create and edit Web pages. "This lightweight authoring and collaboration system lets people use shared versions of documents," Pal said.

— Alan Joch

Dollars sealed the deal

While in the market for a new application server, officials at Naval Air System Command (Navair) initially evaluated JBoss' open-source server on its technical merits alone, giving it very high marks. A subsequent cost comparison with its closest commercial competitor, BEA Systems' WebLogic, also revealed impressive economic benefits, summarized below.

Open-source software: JBoss

Software license: Free

Initial training and support contract: $30,000

Annual maintenance agreement: $18,000

Total fees: $48,000

Commercial software: BEA WebLogic

Software license: $50,000 per CPU (Navair needed a license for eight dual-processor servers.)

Total fees: $800,000, not including support

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