CSC Says Open Source Is Prolific and Vital
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
Not everyone in the corporate world understands the full impact that open source software is having on IT projects above and beyond its roots in the Unix market and the adoption of Linux, perhaps the most visible kind of open source software in use today. That's why the open source enthusiasts at services giant Computer Sciences Corp. have put together a 96-page report about how open source software is radically changing the way that IT shops think about software in general, not just operating systems.
Because CSC has spent years several years building up a technology services business that specializes in open source software, the report from CSC is a bit self-serving. But the report, "Open Source: Open for Business" (in PDF format), is written by a company that spans 45 years in the IT services industry, and its opinions count.
The report details not only the advent of open source software in all aspects of software--including some relatively new and still nascent offerings in the data warehousing and ERP area--but also, and perhaps more usefully, documents the mind shift that CSC had to undergo as it moved from developing its own software for customers using closed source methods to the collaborative programming employed by the various open source communities. While the shift in mindset is difficult, CSC's experts say they end result is more secure and robust code and a more agile software development process. To drive this point home, CSC says that many of the projects that it worked on using these open source methods (and often using open source components) allowed it to have better time to market and lower costs than offshored software projects. Faster time to market is not hard to imagine in pitting internal open source projects against offshored projects, but lower costs should raise a few eyebrows in the business world.
The sheer size of the open source world is daunting. According to the report, the number of projects on SourceForge.net, the de facto home of the largest collection of open source projects on the planet, the number of open source projects was 1,362 in 2000, and as Linux took off that year and the concept of open source software went mainstream, it exploded to 16,249 projects in 2001 and doubled again to 32,739 projects in 2002. By mid-2004, the number of open source projects hosted on SourceForge stood at 82,719, and the number users on the SourceForge network has grown from 7,908 in 2000 to 864,996 by mid-2004. This is a very large number of coders, with an average of more than 10 contributors per project. Right now, according to our estimates, the users on SourceForge probably make up about 5 percent of the 20 million or so programmers in the world. There is no reason to believe that it will not be 10 percent next year, and 20 percent the year after that. However, CSC warns that anywhere from 80 percent to 90 percent of those open source projects are currently offering low quality or low usage software. But, SourceForge is still a great testbed for an idea. If a project dies a-birthing on SourceForge, then either the code was bad or the idea was bad--or both--and that is how a meritocracy like the open source community is supposed to work.
CSC's report provides some good advice as your company considers using open source software. First and foremost, only rely on the delivered features in any open source program as you architect your systems and applications. (This is perhaps good advice for proprietary programs, too.) While commercial software developers certainly overextend on the features they promise and/or miss delivery dates, the managers of open source projects are much more organic delivery dates and feature sets, and based on the merit of an idea, software features could be cut or changed in substantial ways. CSC also cautions that the legal and business issues relating to open source software--issues that have not yet been put to the test in the courts--have to be taken seriously, particularly with regard to the various kinds of open source licenses. In my opinion, the various indemnity offerings that have been brought to market have not been tested, either, and they should be regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. In particular, the indemnifications for Linux provided by Hewlett-Packard, Red Hat, Novell, and Open Source Development Labs have many restrictions, and it is unclear if IT shops can or will adhere to these restrictions. If you are really worried about legal issues, just want to do simple infrastructure jobs, and already have Unix skills, it makes good sense to simply use one of the BSDs, which have better features and security, anyway.