Does open source really work for business?

When using open-source software, businesses usually choose between a free, community-supported version of an application or a fee-based enterprise version that includes support, service, updates and other features.

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Business users also have to decide for which purpose they want to use open-source software and how critical it will be to their business processes.

Free, community-supported versions are fine for testing or non-critical needs, but when the work is mission-critical, users say they are more likely to pay for enterprise versions of open-source applications.

Jeremy Cole, a co-founder of MySQL consulting vendor Proven Scaling LLC, says that sometimes this split development model can cause unintended problems. One issue, he said, is that businesses that need to rely on stable, mature code aren't always getting what they pay for.

At MySQL, Cole says, "they release the enterprise version more often than the community version". What that means is that "while enterprise users are getting fixes faster, they're essentially running untested code", he said.

Others share the concerns. Such issues are growing in importance as more large companies buy open-source companies, adding a boost to open-source software in enterprise systems. Sun Microsystems' recent acquisition of open-source database vendor MySQL AB is the most recent evidence of this trend.

The beauties of open source Bill Parducci, CTO of Think Passenger, which builds online communities for companies and their customers, says open-source code is important to his young company because it lowers technology costs and allows customisation of key source code.

"The concept of an organisation pushing out the code faster so their clients can get the code faster, I don't agree with that," Parducci says. "Customers can't keep up." Because of such pressures, Linux vendor Red Hat doubled the length of its new version cycles several years ago to better meet the needs of its customers, he said.

"Software is more stable and supportable when [new versions are] less frequent. There's no value in software that doesn't work predictably."

Parducci says he is seeing more examples of software that takes a "hybrid approach" between open source, closed source, functionality, risk and support. "At the end of the day, you need to solve a problem," he said. "I think we're finally over the day of people running up the hill with a flag of open source or a flag of anti-open source."

Think Passenger uses a host of open-source applications, including Red Hat Enterprise Linux, CentOS Linux, Iona Technologies' Fuse Message Broker, Jetty Web server and Terracotta's network-attached memory applications.

Parducci said he uses the paid enterprise versions of most applications so he can get expert support and the most stable code. With Iona, "they take it, they stabilise the releases, they package it together and put support around it," he said. "It's the same basic code as the community version with support and stabilisation. It's working out well for us."

Parducci said he looks at whether a prospective open-source vendor is trying to upsell to a proprietary version of its product or whether a proprietary version is needed to maintain full functionality with other products. "To me, that really becomes a red flag," he said.

"Are they supporting the open-source stuff just to sell me up to the other side?" Working with most open-source vendors has been satisfactory, he said, but there is room for improvement, particularly among the smaller vendors. Such vendors need to ensure "timely feedback and improved communities" so that business users can get the help they require, he said.

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