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Gartner: open source software 'pervasive'

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It is a wise manager that does not make decisions based on the survey data put together by the major IT market researchers. But sometimes a skinny bit of survey data is all you have to start with, and that data is better than no data at all - particularly if you're trying to make a case to upper management either for or against the deployment of a specific bit of hardware or software.

And so it is with a survey done by the analysts at Gartner, during the months of May and June when the economic meltdown wasn't hovering over the minds of IT departments. (And indeed, all the other departments, too). According to a 274 companies polled in various industries in North America, Europe, and the Asia/Pacific region - including a cross section of small, midrange, and large enterprises - some 85 per cent of the companies have adopted open source software within their system, middleware, or application software stacks. And from back at the cusp of spring and summer, the remaining 15 per cent polled said that they were planning to deploy open source software within the next 12 months.

That's an expected move from pervasive to ubiquitous in a mere year.

But that's not the same thing as being deployed throughout the whole software stack. There is plenty of closed source code out there, and indeed, there is plenty of binary code out that compiled from open source code that is, as far as corporations are concerned, used exactly like closed source code. While there are some people who are zealots about deploying open source software, there are lots more companies who do not have the luxury of being purists.

Any company that is more than a few years old is going to have lots of closed source software, and companies that have been around for a long time probably have a lot of ancient legacy code they developed themselves. There are apparently more than 180 billion lines of COBOL code still out there - representing an accumulated investment reaching $1 trillion - all of it open to the company programmers who maintain it and closed to the rest of us. How do you count that? Ditto for homegrown RPG, Java, PHP, and other languages used within company walls to code applications.

What would be much more interesting to see is how much of the software stack is closed source, how much is open source, and how much is home-grown - and where in the stack this all breaks down. Gartner did mumble that customer service applications are the leading non-infrastructure workload for which open source software is used, followed by enterprise integration, finance and administration, and business analytics applications. Sales and marketing, customer analytics, field service, ERP, and CRM solutions based on open source code are also starting to be adopted, according to those polled. You have to be a rich Gartner client to get more detailed information than that.

What Gartner is willing to say for free is that open source software adoption rates on new projects are about the same for mission-critical applications as for the remaining, non-core apps. For now, the usual gang of suspects in the infrastructure area - print, file, Web, email, and so on - were cited as being the open source software most commonly deployed, but looking ahead, companies back in May and June were thinking about open source application software and how it might be deployed in their organizations. With the global economy in the tank, anything that provides savings will have an advantage. So open source application software makers - the relative few there are that have a business model you could base a business on - are possibly facing the same gravy train that gave Linux a big chunk of Unix market share in the 2000-2001 IT recession.

Gartner added that 69 percent of the same companies surveyed about their use of open source software said that they nonetheless do not have a formal policy for evaluating and cataloging open source software usage within their companies. And the boogie man of lawyers and potential intellectual property violations quickly becomes the topic of conversation.

"Just because something is free doesn't mean that it has no cost," chastised Laurie Wurster, research director at Gartner who did the survey and companion report. "Companies must have a policy for procuring OSS, deciding which applications will be supported by OSS, and identifying the intellectual property risk or supportability risk associated with using OSS. Once a policy is in place, then there must be a governance process to enforce it."

In all honesty, the IT department is worried about bigger issues, rightly or wrongly, these days. The adoption of open source software is being driven by the need to lower both development costs and the overall cost of operating a particular software stack. This need is only going to be more pronounced as the economy worsens, and some people will think open source software is the answer. (In some cases, it will be. In others, maybe not). And while companies may be perplexed by the licensing terms of the open source code they use, they have lawyers and if they don't, they can figure it out on their own. The GNU GPL is no worse (and certainly more sensible) than a EULA - something that very few people probably read in either case. Open or closed. ®

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