Open-source solutions used to be adopted quietly by company boffins who snuck in an Apache Web server or an open-source development tool suite under the philosophy "It's easier to get forgiveness than permission" (not to mention "It's easier to do it with open-source tools than to get an IT budget").
That's no longer the case, according to a survey of IT and business executives and managers, conducted in late April 2008 by CIO.com. The survey, collecting data from 328 respondents, showed that more than half the respondents (53 percent) are using open-source applications in their organisation today, and an additional 10 percent plan to do so in the next year. For nearly half, 44 percent, open-source applications are considered equally with proprietary solutions during the acquisition process.
Among those currently employing open-source solutions, the primary uses are operating systems such as Linux (78 percent), infrastructure applications, such as back-end databases and Web servers (74 percent), and software development tools like Eclipse (61 percent).
Those may sound fairly geeky, but business application use isn't far behind. Nearly half of the survey respondents, 45 percent, are using desktop applications such as OpenOffice.org, and 29 percent use open-source enterprise applications. The most popular of those enterprise applications are collaboration tools, customer relationship management (CRM) tools and ERP applications.
Moreover, open-source solutions are generating confidence. Close to three in five respondents, 58 percent, strongly agree or agree with the statement that Linux is reliable enough to depend upon for mission-critical applications. Remarkably, that confidence is highest among IT executives and managers: 62 percent say Linux is ready for prime time.
Respondents to the survey ranged from IT executive or manager (59 percent) and business executive or manager (13 percent) to IT professionals (20 percent) and business professionals (8 percent).
For contrast: Three-quarters (77 percent) of software developers responding to the last Evans Data Open Source Software/Linux Development Survey absolutely or probably have enough confidence in Linux to use it for mission-critical applications. Take that with a grain of salt: By their qualifications for participation in that market research study, those developers are tipped in favor of using or writing open source (if not Linux), so a higher ranking is not surprising.
What Makes Open Source Appealing-and Not
The primary reasons enterprise IT departments adopt open source are financial. Lower total cost of ownership (59 percent) and acquisition costs (56 percent) lead the pack. But money isn't everything. Greater flexibility was cited as a primary reason by 32 percent of respondents, and access to source code is a motivation for one in three (30 percent). Attributes of the source code itself aren't key drivers; better-quality code is a primary reason for adoption by just 12 percent, and product functionality by 22 percent.
Greatest Barriers to Open-Source Software Adoption at Your Company?
Source: CIO.com survey of 328 IT and business executives and managers, April 2008. Up to three items selected.
Again, you'll notice that the qualities of the open-source applications themselves aren't as big a deal. Software quality issues are cited as a primary barrier to adoption by 20 percent and customization concerns by 15 percent. So if you're trying to sell the boss on the virtues of open source, spend more time on reassurance about tech support availability and quality than you do on customization opportunities.
Companies that use (or plan to use) open source generally have the same concerns as do companies that stick with proprietary solutions. The main exception is open source's top sticking point. Half the respondents whose companies use open source today (52 percent) cite product support concerns as the greatest barrier to entry. A third (33 percent) of those who don't use open source identified this as a primary problem. Product support is still their top item - just with less urgency. In other words, the folks who are using this stuff know that it's a problem; those who aren't using it simply expect it to be.
One item that may quell the fears of enterprises contemplating open-source solutions: Once you have the software in-house, code quality concerns become far less important. Enterprises that aren't using open source cite code quality as the third-highest issue (after product support and security concerns), but it's number 7 (of 12) for those who have been working with the applications. Once you have your hands on the code, apparently, you discover the situation is better than you imagined.
Open-source developers have somewhat different priorities than do their managers. According to the Evans Data survey, the biggest obstacles to adoption are a corporate preference for proprietary software, lack of device drivers and the need to learn a new set of skills. The quality of support was the biggest obstacle to only 15 percent of developers.
Making Open Source Work In-House
About a quarter of corporations (27 percent) have a formal policy in place regarding open-source applications, though 18 percent expect to adopt such a policy in the next 12 months. Of those with open-source policies, 45 percent feel their policies are very effective and 46 percent somewhat so. Presumably, the "somewhat so" respondents are thinking about the amount of open-source software that's been installed by IT staff and developers without company approval; one in five (21 percent) admits to it (often or sometimes).
While more than half of enterprises use open source today, the degree of intimacy with the philosophy varies quite a bit. Companies may often (43 percent) or sometimes (24 percent) treat such applications as, well, just free software; they run the application but don't even look at the source code. Although they can access the source code, it isn't common for enterprise IT departments to use open-source modules in their own code, whether or not they make code changes. For example, 18 percent often use unchanged code modules as though the modules are a free source library, and 36% do so occasionally. Still, half, 49 percent, often or sometimes report bugs or contribute their changes back to the open-source community; 11 percent have open-source committers on their staff.
Once open source was rejected as appropriate for enterprise use. Clearly, that's no longer the situation today.