Will open source software kill proprietary vendors?Talk to any CIO or IT analyst and it’s likely they won’t be talking about the latest database from Oracle or development platform from Microsoft. There’s even less excitement about hardware like the latest network switch from Cisco, storage gear from EMC or server from HP.

In fact, they’re probably not talking about any proprietary hardware or software at all. Today’s buzz is around cloud-oriented provisioning, management and integration tools such as Puppet, Chef and Jenkins and big data repositories such as Hadoop. They are only the tip of the iceberg of a veritable zoo of tools developed by the open-source community (or built in-house using open source tools).

Open source software is usually low-cost or free. But the biggest draw, according to many customers I’ve spoken with recently, is that anyone can enhance the software and share their improvements through open source code repositories such as GitHub. That allows organizations to develop, scale and improve innovative digital products at warp speed, in the DevOps model of near-continuous development, tweaking and deployment.

The New Normal

For example, business networking site LinkedIn conducts more than 100 experiments on its site per day to see which features its 175 million users like best. It stores 450Tbytes of data on storage from established vendors Oracle and Teradata, but another whopping five Pbytes (with another ten available) in Hadoop.

Much of LinkedIn’s heavy lifting is done by the Sensei distributed real-time database, the Azkaban job scheduler for Hadoop, the Bobo search platform and Zoie real-time indexing system for “elastic, faceted real-time search,” Norbert to manage clusters and workload distribution, and Kafka for messaging. Not only are all these open source, but LinkedIn built Sensei, Azkaban, Kafka and Voldemort in-house.

Or consider the Instagram photo-sharing site, which scaled from 25,000 members the first day to more than 30 million  in under two years. All this was done with only two engineers in 2010, three in 2011 and five in 2012, the year Facebook bought the site for $1 billion. Their infrastructure included the Nginx HTTP server and reverse proxy), the Redis keyvalue store database, the PostgreSQL object-relational database and the Django Web framework for Website creation – again, all open source.

That’s a pretty high-profile business, which earned a fortune for its founders, that didn’t generate many purchase orders for Fortune 500 software or services companies.

Need for Speed

This combination of speed, flexibility, scalability and low cost makes open source a huge challenge to the business model of mainstream software vendors. The mantra used to be that “Big companies like to buy from big companies.” But at a recent conference a CIO quipped that these days, you can indeed be fired buying IBM if open source could have delivered more capabilities for less money.

Some skeptics say the old-line vendors aren’t in close enough touch with the latest market requirements in areas like social, big data, Web 2.0 and mobile. In a big company, after all, requirements must be filtered through marketing committees and big development organizations before they reach the market. In open source, someone sees a need, codes it, and shares it. Even if legacy software providers survive, what (and how far) will they have to cut to meet open source price points?

Most proprietary software vendors are scrambling to respond. IBM was among the first, choosing not to fight the open-source Linux operating system but to embrace it as a way to sell other software, as well as hardware and services.

“I’m not sure there’s anything like a traditional proprietary software company left,” Ashesh Badani, General Manager of the Cloud Business Unit and OpenShift PaaS at Red Hat told me at the recent Red Hat Summit in Boston. Companies ranging from Intel to Microsoft are major contributors to open source efforts, he said. And even vendors who are not going the total open source route are approaching Red Hat for help developing user communities and using its partners to distribute their products.

Whatever software companies do on the technology front, they’ll need to tailor their marketing to play in the open source world. Once they’ve chosen a cute name and mascot for their offerings, there are some key messages they need to hit. Look for those in Part II of this series later this week.

Author: Bob Scheier
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I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

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