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Making steady inroads

Making steady inroads

It may not be taking the world by storm, but open source still has a growing and determined group of adherents. The open source model has been applied to development and adaptation of software from academia to major government departments and commercial operations. Cost is the advantage most often emphasized when considering open source software. Most of it is given away or released at a very low price, and open-source code is freely made available for reuse and adaptation, under a simple unpaid licence arrangement.

The GPL (General Public Licence) commits the developer to making the software available on similar terms to which any components of it have been obtained. This means a developer can save time and money by picking up work that others have done, says Professor Ian Witten of The University of Waikato. He and colleagues have developed Greenstone, a library system and Weka, a workbench for building data mining applications. Greenstone, for example, in building digital libraries, is frequently required to "decode" documents in Microsoft Word format, turning it into simple text or HTML. Routines to do this have already been developed independently and can simply be slotted in to the Greenstone code, says Witten. Microsoft, the archetypal "closed source"company, has not released details of its proprietary format.

Choosing open source rather than the conventional commercial distribution model "is not an easy decision", says Witten. "Many academics try to commercialize their work, so they can become rich as well as famous; but it doesn't often turn out that way; academics tend not to be good at making commercial businesses work.

"I decided the closed-source commercial route wasn't the way I wanted to go. I get paid a good salary and I have a lot of graduate students to help me,"so the lure of making money when it involves administering and paying staff and dealing with complex licensing arrangements for both what you use and what you sell, isn't worth the trouble, he says.

In the open source world "it's quite clear what you're allowed to do and what you're not allowed to do. That lets you get on with the job," Witten says. "Having to bother with licences makes you less productive, and we don't enjoy it so much. The open source world is more fun to work in. We might get a request; 'Can you make Greenstone do this?' and we search around with Google and we might well find there's some code available."

The core of Greenstone's runtime system is written in C++ and Java -- the C++ parts are gradually being migrated over to Java. Some Perl is also included.

Greenstone was seen as an opportunity for communities in developing countries to organize digital resources economically. The developers became involved with UNESCO in providing CD-ROMs loaded with library material and the Greenstone software, for people in developing countries who did not have internet access. The project was of limited use, Witten says, as material became quickly outdated.

It also meant the software had to fit with some very old Windows-based PCs. "Compilers don't produce code that runs on Windows 3.1,"he says. "Trying to make it do that was the boring part. It works well on Windows 98 [and subsequent versions]."

Open source is a different economic model, but can be profitable, he says. "You give away the code, but then you build services around it."

Hamilton company DL Consulting does international projects setting up Greenstone-based libraries for clients who want to avoid the trouble of doing it themselves. Because there is no software licensing cost, the work, even with the services element, costs the client much less than a full commercial project would, Witten says.

With economical availability comes wider distribution and heightened reputation. "I'm sure if we were selling this commercially, we'd be a lot less well-known than we are." The disadvantages are "a perspective that we're giving away something valuable and that's not doing the country's economy much good, but we're getting fantastic exposure for New Zealand". Greenstone now has users in more than 70 countries.

Sustainability is another worrying question; "It's hard to promise support 10 years out, but that's not a problem unique to open source. Many closed-source commercial developers can't promise that either."

A good deal of open-source code is buried in the "back-rooms"of commercial operations, in products such as the Apache web-server. Robust and well respected, it can be made to present a commercial system with an interface identical to commercial servers, so users and managers don't even know they're running open source. From there, it often creeps gradually further into the organization's IT.

Tax assistance

The Inland Revenue department has implemented the Linux open source operating system in some significant roles, including a document management system now under development, which will be based on the SUSE distribution. IRD imaging applications are also Linux-based. Linux has been "defined as a standard"in the department's information architecture, says CIO Ross Hughson, so it is readily available as an option for applications suitable to its use.

The Electoral Enrolment Center uses an open-source system developed by Catalyst IT to maintain the electoral rolls for the country.

Key drivers for the system, spokesman Jason Horncy says, include "reducing business costs through implementing changes in technology to allow automation and greater efficiency,"providing for "proactive enrolment", and increasing accuracy.

The system had to be responsive to the electoral cycles, "which have an element of unpredictability". The integrity of the data is paramount, says Horncy.

These requirements helped steer the enrolment center to Catalyst's proposed solution. Catalyst IT is a New Zealand company committed to open standards and open source technologies. "As well as an obvious cost reduction in licensing fees from these technologies, the enrolment center's decision to go with the company's proposal was influenced by its multi-tier architecture [conducive to] security and scalability; the platform-agnostic nature of the application for vendor independence, and the modular design [promoting] maintainability and reusability."The application suite is based on the Debian GNU/Linux operating system -- "well suited for server environments,"says Horncy. Debian "is thoroughly tested with update and upgrade processes that allow the maintenance of a secure and stable installation."Catalyst IT has substantial experience with Debian.

XML is a key part of the enrolment center's system. The XMLRPC (remote procedure call) protocol is used for communication between the web servers and application servers. "This open protocol standard is clearly defined and is not overly complicated, "Horncy says. The system is written in Perl and uses the Apache web server. The PostgreSQL database used "offers multi-user performance at levels comparable with proprietary solutions as well as strong compliance with SQL standards, " Horncy says. Catalyst IT was already using PostgreSQL successfully on several of its other clients' applications. Open source tools are available for database replication.

Doing more with less

Known as Mike, the electoral-roll system went live in September 2003. Users access the applications through a web browser. The enrolment center network consists of more than 20 district sites, and head-office primary and secondary processors, all connected by virtual private networks. The primary cluster is in Wellington and a secondary disaster-recovery site is in Auckland. This also allows load-balancing for certain jobs.

The database holds some 1.47 million addresses for 2.89 million voters. About 18 per cent of the population move in a given year

"All district offices run a customized version of Ubuntu Linux for desktops," Horncy says "and the majority of the office software is also open source, such as OpenOffice for word processing and spreadsheets.

"We also provide an online enrolment application for the general public, available through the website www.elections.org.nz.

There were a few challenges associated with the open source route, Horncy says. "Being an early adopter meant that there were few other organizations to approach regarding their experiences. Overall, any problems associated with implementing the Mike system would also have been apparent if we had chosen to use proprietary software."

As these cases show, cost isn't everything when it comes to open source. People love finding good deals, like stumbling across an inexpensive but delightful wine. And then they will buy it again -- not because it's cheap but because it's good.

That's the pattern emerging with many open source implementations. Driven by cost containment pressures, many cash-strapped organizations are turning to open source solutions for relief. But once they've implemented a system component and found it is good, they come back for more.

Jim Elliott, infrastructure solutions manager and Linux advocate for IBM Canada, says companies implement open source for edge-of-network applications, then move it in gradually to more critical business areas as they gain experience.

"People start looking at Linux as a cost avoidance thing, but find other reasons to do it later,"he says. "Buying a Linux distribution from vendors is not cheap -- the price on a per year basis is in the same range as a Windows server licence. But you're getting over a thousand applications with that investment: Open source databases, web services and so on."

Dale Sinstead, IS director at Pioneer Petroleum in Canada, says he was not driven by any anti-Microsoft sentiment in his Linux implementation, and has retained Windows in many areas where it makes sense. Pioneer had already done some toe-dipping into Linux for a few years at the server end, and decided to take the plunge last year and implement Red Hat workstations at the client end, with IBM's Lotus Notes for Linux as the collaboration glue binding the system. Sinstead points out you can pay dearly for open source software, depending on how it's packaged. "Linux isn't right for everything -- no operating system is,"he cautions. "If you put it in places where it doesn't belong, you will have a bad experience with it."

With additional reporting by Rosie Lombardi, CIO Canada

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