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OSBC Open source is increasingly driving enterprise development projects and installations, but big customers still rely on start-up software providers for support.

A panel of customers at the Open Source Business Conference (OSBC) in San Francisco today agreed unanimously that open source enable them to kick-start projects they could otherwise not afford.

However, companies put the onus on open source software companies to step up and field questions, provide bug fixes, and to continually update their software.

Representatives from personal tax and accounting giant H&R Block, the Playstation operation of entertainment giant Sony, the Christian Science Monitor, and MIT told OSBC that support for emerging technologies is essential.

H&R Block's use of open source spans Alfresco enterprise content management, Zimbra email, and Java Business Process Management (JPBM) in various public and internal projects.

Company architect Daniel Cahoon said using Alfresco rather than EMC's Documentum meant H&R Block had paid one tenth of its regular software licensing. Alfresco charges $10,000 per socket for an unlimited number of users.

According to Cahoon, open source is important for proof-of-concept and development that would be too costly using closed source software.

He joked - at least we think he did - that support for Google Web Toolkit - used in one project - was thin on the ground as Google's developers were all off writing books. "You have to be careful," he warned those considering the open source route. "Don't go after the niche, bleeding edge, cutting edge if you haven't got the people internally."

Oliver Marks, senior manger for the Playstation web portal - accessed by engineers - agreed: "We are looking for a really healthy support community. If my guys are too busy and can't figure it out, there are problems."

The panel expressed concern over the tendency for developers to congregate around some sets of features and customer requirements while leaving others relatively untouched. Gaps were highlighted in management administration tools for installing Linux and open source, building enhancements for proprietary software packages, and in enterprise-wide calendaring.

Marks, who had singled out open source calendaring, said: "If we were building something from IBM they might be able to steer their supertankers in that direction. But open source can be wild and woolly - it's strong in some areas [not in others]. In an enterprise environment that can be very scary."

Marks supported open source for freeing him from the tyranny of vendor roadmaps and for enabling greater freedom to innovate by running with the code. "We would be building with commercial software if it fitted out needs... [but] we have control and know what's going on," he said.

Russ Danner, software architect at the Christian Science Monitor, said open source lets his organization shape product development. By participating in design and coding through the community process, customers get more input than through the alpha and beta development cycles of enterprise vendors. "You get input at the beginning of the product upgrade cycle," he said. ®

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