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LinuxWorld OpenSolutions Wrap Up--Is Open Source Really Superior?

The Word from the Floor

  • February 19, 2007
  • By Jacqueline Emigh

Without a doubt, the topic wasn't on the official list of conference tracks at LinuxWorld OpenSolutions Summit 2007. But among IT managers and developers who braved icy winds and snow to trek to the two-day show in New York City, talk was in the air over whether software emerging from the open source tradition is really any better than other software.

In casual hallway conversations, and even during formal presentations, some expressed skepticism over certain software offerings.

"It seems to me that a lot of the software people think of as 'open source' isn't truly open source," said Kenneth Dombrowski, a Web site developer attending the show.

Dombrowski was referring to a movement among some vendors to provide not just free open source software, but commercial "hybrid" products mixing open source with proprietary components.

"There's been far too much of that kind of thing lately, in my opinion," the developer told LinuxPlanet.

Other attendees also cited some of the costs--hidden or not--that can go hand-in-hand with open source software. Of course, open source licensing is a lot less restrictive than proprietary licensing schemes.

But pricing from vendors isn't necessarily all that low, especially when costs of services get figured into the equation, said Jon Stumpf of AIG Technologies.

"Licensing isn't everything," Stumpf contended, during a session called "Roundtable Discussion: Windows & Linux Interoperability Challenges and Success Stories."

"Open source has its own 'gotchas,'" according to the speaker. For one thing, users of some open source software now need to worry about the prospect of lawsuits over patent infringements, he said.

Like most of the other OpenSolutions sessions, this one drew good numbers and enthusiastic participation--even though many who'd originally registered for the conference wound up either getting there late, leaving early, or never arriving at all due to February blizzard conditions along the East Coast and elsewhere.

To those in the audience for the roundtable talk, Stumpf recommended evaluating open source software in exactly the same way that proprietary products have always been vetted.

Further, if you decide to use an open source-based product, you should get indemnification from lawsuits written into the contract, said Stumpf. "You can get [that] specified," he suggested.

Many of the entities that signed on to exhibit at OpenSolutions Summit are indeed providers of open source software, even if some of them also beef up their business models with services and/or commercial hybrid products. Yet that general rule of thumb didn't apply to everyone.

For example, take VMware, a virtualization software vendor acquired by storage giant EMC Corp. back in 2003. VMware doesn't supply any open source software, despite the fact that some of its products are now available free of charge.

But as some customers at OpenSolutions seemed to see it, free can be good, anyway, whether or not the software is built on open source technology.

In another widely attended session, Bruce McMillan, a presenter from Solvay Pharmaceuticals, detailed how he'd used VMware's virtualization products to save at least $1.5 million for his company by consolidating various Windows software on to fewer hardware servers.

Clearly, a lot of those in McMillan's audience were also interested in cutting costs through virtualization, especially if they could do so via free or low-cost software. They peppered the speaker with questions.

Which versions of Windows have gotten consolidated, for instance? The servers have included Windows NT 4, 2000, and 2003, answered McMillan, who is Solvay's manager of emerging technologies. Beyond that, some Windows 95 software been retained in "roped off" status, to prevent it from doing harm to other systems, and vice versa.

Has software virtualization caused any performance slowdowns? According to McMillan, quite the reverse has held true. "Actually, we've had an increase in performance," he replied. However, McMillan attributed the boost to a series of PC server upgrades on the hardware side.

Audience members also wanted to find out about the virtualization software Solvay has used. McMillan said that, after evaluating VMWare's GSX Server and ESX Server, the pharmaceutical firm opted for ESX because it runs on an underlying Linux kernel instead of a host OS, offering more scalability.

In response to another question, McMillan noted that a deployment of GSX wouldn't have been free, anyway. A little over a year ago, VMware surprised a lot of people by unveiling a free software product called VMware Server, which was a successor to the commercially sold GSX. Unlike the old GSX, though, VMware Server comes with no vendor support.

But, said McMillan, Solvay launched its first virtualization project back in 2003, way before VMware Server came into being. The pharmaceutical maker also used another commercial product, VMware P2V, to migrate some of its servers. Then, after adding an EMC Clarion SAN, Solvay implemented VMware's Virtual Center and VMotion products.

Meanwhile, according to AIG Technologies' Stumpf, at the proverbial end of the day, costs and other "gotchas" associated with open source and proprietary software tend to pale in comparison to the customer's underlying business needs.

Does the business success of a company depend on a particular application? "Then it's worth it to use that [software], anyhow," Stumpf told the OpenSolutions showgoers.

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