itmWEB TechWeekly

August 27,1998

Open Source Software Gets Hip

These tools have enormous potential to go mainstream despite what the critics are saying.

Lately, while walking around our IS department, I have been noticing the Linux penguin everywhere on coffee mugs, screen savers, and golf shirts. These traditional marketing items are mostly possessed by our "in the trenches" programmers. This is interesting to me because I know that Linux is not a traditionally marketed product, and because our company doesn't officially use Linux. Or so I thought...

If you have not heard of "open source" software yet, you soon will. Here are some impressive statistics:

Open source UNIX is now running over 50% of the servers on the internet. The Apache HTTP Server is the most popular Internet server application today, also holding a commanding 50% Internet share. These are impressive numbers for two reasons. First, these products are all essentially freeware or shareware. They can be easily downloaded with no license fee. Second, none were developed by a "for profit" company. Each was created by a worldwide group of independent programmers working together on a virtual project using Internet technology to collaborate. All have .ORG websites which serve as documentation, technical support, and distribution points for the software. Scary stuff to an IT Director like me.

Moving into the Mainstream

The first real wide scale use of open source programs was by small Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to run their servers. Open source products gave these businesses an inexpensive way to bring up servers to host both their own, as well as their client's, web sites. Many businesses today would be surprised to learn that their current corporate website is running on an open source technology foundation at their local ISP.

As the Internet has grown, so has the use of open source software. Surprisingly, the major hardware vendors like Silicon Graphics and Sun are increasingly finding their operating systems being replaced by open source products. These free offerings run easily on PC compatible servers as well. The two most popular UNIX open source downloads are Linux and FreeBSD. Both have large install bases.

A recent CNET news story gave an interesting example of an ISP conversion to open source software because of a hacker attack. You can read it here: Hack raises flags about small ISPs. In this case, the ISP converted to an open source product because the security was better than that provided by the hardware manufacturer's OS.

Bug Free Software?

One of the major reasons that open source products have not found their way into major use by the corporate world is that no direct vendor support is available. How do you get support from a virtual band of programmers? A second concern is that the software will contain more bugs than a true commercial product.

Advocates of open source products point out the reverse situation is really the case. Since the source code is available for all to see, the program code receives much more scrutiny than a commercial product ever will. Thousands of additional folks can discover issues and report them back to the source code maintainers. This is the reason that open source project teams claim to deliver near "bullet-proof" software.

The loose support approach for these products also makes folks nervous about committing to an implementation for their company. Most support is obtained by searching though forum and newsgroup postings, or by reading detailed product FAQs. Many companies prefer the security of a real live software vendor to respond during a crisis.

This need has spawned an entire network of retailers who will sell you the software bundled with additional technical support package. The current support vendor list for Linux can be found here: Linux Retailers. One example company which is having great success in marketing Linux and providing add-on support is Red Hat Software.

The Big Boys join the Party

Recently the major technology companies have been slowly and quietly announcing support for these open source products. IBM recently announced that they will provide implementation support for the Apache HTTP Server on IBM products. All of the major database vendors have announced that they will supply versions of their products for the Linux operating system. These are important endorsements which will further bring these products into the mainsteam.

Make no mistake, these companies are not happy about this situation. This concept is destroying their current licensing models. The company with the most to lose is Microsoft. A decent program interface on these open source products could pose a new threat to the server OS empire Microsoft is currently building. Sun is so nervous that they recently announced that Solaris will now be free for non-commercial use. Netscape has finally gone back to its roots by making Commmunicator an open source product.

The whole thing reminds me a little of my early days when I spent my work hours coding for the IBM mainframe to earn a paycheck, but I spent my off hours writing programs for an Atari 800 and later for the Microsoft's operating system on the PC. When I talk to young programmers today about how they are spending their off hours, I am getting answers like, "I now have my own Linux UNIX server running Apache at my home to support my own website homepage". These folks are downloading, learning, using, and contributing to these open source tools as a hobby. These are also the IT decision makers of tomorrow.

And that's why we have a Linux server running DNS at our company today...