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CIOs take a top-down approach to open source

Open source first found its way into enterprises through grassroots adoption, but CIOs are starting to lead the way. Now that they have the reins, there is more at stake.

CIOs are taking over from those in the trenches and leading the charge into open source.

Experts say enterprise use of open source has long been the provenance of developers and other rank-and-file IT pros, but as open source matures and more enterprise-ready tools become available, CIOs are taking over, bringing a new top-down approach to adoption.

"I think it's not just a trend. I think it's the natural evolution of the open source industry," said Alex Fletcher, lead analyst at Silver Spring, Md.-based open source research firm Entiva Group Inc. "At the beginning there was a ground-floor open source movement. You had source code and products that were really only suited for hands-on, highly technical people to use. Now you're seeing more and more enterprise-ready open source applications."

Fletcher said CIOs are also beginning to realize open source is more than a "bubble" or "fad."

It's part of a movement that is larger than open source. It's more about open processes and transparent, community-based interaction. "What that's doing is allowing the creation of a lot of high-quality IT assets," Fletcher said.

"It is shifting," said Raven Zachary, a senior analyst and head of the open source practice at The 451 Group in Minneapolis. "Enterprise adoption has been led by contributor, developers. Often they'll use open source to solve a problem that's too small to be on the radar of the CIO. Suddenly the enterprise is using open source technology. But a complementary trend is that CIOs are being educated more and more about open source."

When discussing the value proposition of open source technology, many in the industry often mention costs savings first thing. But IT pros from the CIO down are beginning to recognize other advantages to open source adoption.

Bill Crowell, CIO of the Oregon Department of Human Services, said his agency adopted SugarCRM, an open source customer relationship management product, last year.

"We did that because one of our senior technical people was able to download the open source version of [SugarCRM's] code with documentation, and have it up and running and operational on our server within 24 hours," Crowell said.

Crowell said without a quick implementation of SugarCRM, his agency would have had to process 60,000 Medicaid claims with paper documentation. Instead, only 37 claims required paper.

"This business is starting to mature at a very rapid rate," Crowell said. "What's driving the interest in this area, No. 1, is value or cost. The other is that when the model is properly executed, it can provide for a more robust application to serve the needs of our business. SugarCRM, they have 45,000 developers around the world contributing to their product at no cost. I don't think has 45,000 developers on staff. How are they going to keep up? The answer is, they're not."

A recent survey of 1,150 enterprise software developers by Marina Del Rey, Calif.-based open source consultancy Simula Labs revealed that 33% said better control over software code was their main reason for using open source-based development tools. Less than 25% cited cost savings. Another 18% cited the ability to avoid "vendor lock-in," and 19.5% said open source tools offered a "lower barrier" to evaluation and use.

Zachary, of The 451 Group, said cost savings is still a big factor for companies considering open source.

"CIOs tend to look at open source initially as a cost savings issue, while developers look at things such as flexibility of component architecture and best-of-breed solutions," Zachary said.

But CIOs should also recognize that open source can protect them from "vendor lock-in," Zachary said. "Vendor lock-in is directly tied to cost savings."

CIOs tend to look at open source initially as a cost savings issue, while developers look at things such as flexibility of component architecture and best-of-breed solutions.

Raven Zachary, analyst, The 451 Group

When an IT organization commits to a proprietary vendor, migrating to an alternative product to score a better support and maintenance agreement can be a difficult proposition. With open source, IT organizations can often find a new company to provide support and maintenance without having to adopt a new technology.

Zachary said open source can also offer better security because a large community of open source developers can produce and distribute patches quickly, while Microsoft customers often have to wait for Patch Tuesday.

"Security experts think open source is made more vulnerable because it is transparent, but those who have a vested interest in securing open source software from vulnerabilities move at the same pace as those who have an interest in exploiting them," Zachary said.

Ultimately, the other benefits of open source should eclipse cost savings, Zachary said. He said CIOs who adopt open source should find other justifications for the technology at the outset, because ultimately an organization may migrate from one open source product to another. If it does, cost savings is unlikely to be a real value proposition.

"You have to look at others, like efficiency, time to market," Zachary said. "You have to justify the next-generation adoption."

Zachary said that by taking the lead on open source, CIOs can improve the process of open source adoption within their organizations.

"I think that organizations that are looking at open source [will find] the person in charge of budgeting is willing to commit labor and other related costs. Then you have full support from all levels; you're not operating in this covert manner. Organizations in general are not adopting open source in secret for fear of the CIO finding out. When you have alignment and support from the CIO for open source, things tend to operate more smoothly."

Fletcher, of Entiva Group, said CIOs need to bring governance to open source adoption.

"I think there is a need for a model to identify best practices and key performance indicators for managers, to look at open source from the top level and drive change down the chain rather than reacting to it," he said.

But despite the hype, not all CIOs are jumping on the bandwagon. Jim Prevo, CIO at Waterbury, Vt.-based Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc. has too many questions about where open source is going.

"Who is making the investments? Who is supporting the platform? Who gets to determine how the system evolves? If all my above questions were answered well, I suppose I'd tiptoe into it."

And Prevo said adoption of open source without CIO control is a problem.

"Corporations need to manage their spending, IT or otherwise. To effectively manage spending you need professionals to be held accountable for budgeting projects and delivering on the budgets and projects. If we let any department spend money on anything they want, we devolve into anarchy. PCs started this way and it made a mess."

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