The value of Open Source Software in enterprise IT


When talking to clients about the value of open source in enterprise IT I explain that the benefit is more than just cost reduction. I emphasize that the value goes beyond lower cost.

It offers high quality products, rich feature sets, flexibility, control and no vendor lock-in to name just some of the most frequently cited benefits. And yet consistently, for the majority of clients I’ve been talking to over the past year, there has been one single motivation to pursue open source – reduce license spending.

These other factors (no vendor lock-in, control etc.) are often just considered a nice-to-have but are typically not deciding.

One explanation for this is that today many large enterprises take a rather opportunistic and ad hoc approach to open source. In the absence of a vision or strategy that considers open source in a broader IT context, it is understandable that cost is the one factor that executives focus on, especially during times of a global recession.

But there are also examples for enterprises that are in the upper third of the maturity curve in adopting open source. How can those enterprises work with commercial open source vendors and related communities to take advantage of benefits beyond cost reduction?

Collaborating with communities in order to actively participate in product development to represent their own needs for instance is an example of the value of Open Source Software.

Glyn Moody in his blog post on Why Open Source Companies Need to Give Up Control makes an interesting observation. There’s something irritating about how some commercial open source vendors deal with communities.

If the vendor’s product strategy breaks the underlying contract of mutual benefit with companies and people that contribute code, many of the benefits of open source software beyond cost reduction are potentially eliminated.

Moreover, such vendors might risk losing their differentiation from traditional closed sourced vendors long term. In such a case one might raise the question whether the ultimate goal is exploiting communities in order to be eventually acquired as opposed to promoting communities, the backbone for innovation, vendor independence and quality.

The value discussion introduces a level of uncertainty among some CIOs, which sometime leads to confusion or wrong verdicts.

Of course there are good examples where open source contributed to benefits beyond cost reduction. But it is also a reality that many new enterprise customers are primarily interested in open source as a vehicle to reduce IT spending. There’s nothing wrong about saying no to Big Software.

Cost reduction is a very compelling value proposition and hence commercial open source vendors need to continue offering a more competitive pricing than traditional proprietary vendors to further extend their footprint in large-scale enterprises. But vendors should also continue collaborating with communities and enhancing their symbiotic ecosystems around their products.

For me the most compelling value of open source is the one benefit that only few enterprises have fully exploited today – unrestricted access to a specific technology, its underlying ideas, thought leaders and surrounding ecosystem with a mandate of unrestricted participation.

Enterprises that are able to exploit this benefit to ultimately solve their own business problems will be able to pursue the full spectrum of benefits open source brings to the table – a unique opportunity. As I've explained in a previous blog, communities are and will continue to be absolutely critical to driving the innovation and success of open source software.

The sum of all benefits promoted by open source is essentially the result of collaborative development in communities, not a single vendor. But at the same time commercial open source vendors are critical to add enterprise characteristics to the value proposition, something that cannot be managed by communities or foundations alone.

Getting there will be a ripening process for both enterprises and vendors. But undoubtedly the value of open source in enterprise IT goes far beyond cost reduction.

Alex Wied is senior manager, Innovation Centre for Open Source, Accenture

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