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When can open source save?

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LinuxCon 2009 There's no such thing as a free launch. Not even with open source.

Adopting communal code has attracted a fair share of companies with promises of cutting costs. On the other hand, others (viz: Microsoft) will tell you there's higher "hidden" expenses involved with open source in the long-run due to limited support, consulting fees, and reduced functionality.

The truth seems to lie somewhere in the middle. There's definitely money to be saved with open source, but a company needs the right team and the right reasons to take the plunge without losing teeth at the bottom.

Two very different companies shared their success stories with open source at LinuxCon in Portland, Oregon on Tuesday. One is Sesame Workshop, a relatively small non-profit famous for Sesame Street and other strains of educational muppetry. The other, Sony Pictures Entertainment, the enormous for-profit multinational that owns ancillary rights to your children's souls as well as The Karate Kid's.

Sesame Workshop has only about 400 employees worldwide with about 13 working IT, according to Noah Broadwater, vp of the company's information services.

"We went open source because we couldn't pay the huge proprietary licensing costs," Broadwater said. "We compete with Disney and Nickelodeon. We have to keep up with the big boys. These are companies spending hundreds of millions of dollars on their licensing and we have to do it for basically peanuts."

Moving from proprietary Oracle software to open source, Broadwater said the Sesame Workshop reduced its developer team down from 10 to just two — a duo who understand Java and Linux enough to develop under the open source model quickly. And agility is just what it needs. But true to Microsoft's finger pointing, there are still costs involved with developing in open source.

"We do a lot of open source where we pay for support and we work with companies to get development," said Broadwater. "And we're going to pay for consultants regardless."

"But we're able to do stuff faster, and I don't have a licensing fee to worry about," he added. "It's been a great cost saver for us."

As for Sony's deep pockets, licensing fees weren't really the concern so much as development and support.

David Buckholtz, vp of enterprise technology at Sony Pictures, explained that about a year and a half ago, the company had been struggling to upgrade its theatrical distribution system from a custom framework heavily entwined with BEA Workshop.

Switching to open source has allowed SPE to cut its support team by half, according to Buckholtz. But alas, due to ongoing contracts with Oracle for BEA, it's still paying the same licensing fees it did before. While the company's long-term goal is to reduce licensing as well, it's currently relishing on its new-found speed and skills available with open source.

The usual stumbling point for companies looking to switch to the open environment is that they're seeking cost savings without realizing the consequences, according to Jeffery Hammond, a senior analyst with Forrester.

"Mid-sized shops that don't look at development as a core competency and don't have a lot of resources to invest generally don't do as well as with a lot of commercial software that's out there," said Hammond. "The biggest reason is because they're simply looking to keep costs as low as possible and they don't care so much about the innovation angle of custom development. That's where you see disasters crop up." ®

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