Last October, Bull organized in partnership with ANDSI (the French national association of IS Directors), CIGREF (the French association of IT user companies) and the CIO-Club, the ‘Open CIO Summit’ which ran alongside the Open World Forum: the leading international event bringing together decision makers to discuss the technological, economic and social impact of open digital technology. The aim was to establish an Open Source summit meeting organized ‘by CIOs, for CIOs, so as to share experiences and best practices. With the exclusive publication of the conclusions from this summit meeting, Boris Auché from Bull Services, one of the co-founders of the Open CIO Summit, reviews the current state of Open Source within IT Departments.
For many years you have been helping CIOs with their Open Source projects. What is the level of adoption of Open Source software within IT Departments?
These days Open Source has move to state of maturity. Most of IT Departments have already used it for a prototype or a real project. They have seen the advantages it offers. And they have seen its limitations. They have gauged the difference between the marketing hype and reality, based on experience. Nowadays, the IT community has left the ideological debate behind, and is taking a more pragmatic stance, asking itself: “Where can Open Source serve me most effectively?” In short, Open Source has definitely crossed the divide between the pioneers and the majority of users, at least when it comes to certain layers of the IT infrastructure.
The Open CIO Summit is excellent proof of this. We’ve moved away from evangelizing about Open Source and explaining it, to confronting real experiences in a pragmatic way. Open Source has established itself, sometimes without any real fuss, surreptitiously, at the heart of information systems. It is there, and it is required in most project specifications, including (to a growing extent) those from the private sector. It is no longer just being chosen by public sector IT Departments. Of course, some CIOs are still critical of Open Source, but for most of them it is no longer a peripheral decision. Indeed, it’s at the very core of the information system: invisible, but definitely there. That’s why it is becoming so commonplace: it is embedded in numerous solutions from software publishers, and in Cloud Computing and Software-as-a-Service offerings. Oracle, WebSphere and Google are full of Open Source. And nowadays most end-user projects feature Open Source solutions.
Has this success had any influence on the Open Source ecosystem itself, and how it is evolving?
It is even a challenge when it comes to defining the whole area. Nowadays it no longer really makes sense to talk about, “a 92% rate of penetration for Open Source in enterprises”. What are we actually measuring here? In one way, we have to reinvent how we measure Open Source usage, in the same way that some people have suggested we should reinvent how we measure happiness. As one of the CIOs at the Open CIO Summit said: “Open Source is like pirate radio: nowadays it’s just part of the landscape, it’s still there, but no-one talks about it in that way any more”. The old radio stations have reinvented themselves, even creating their own pirate stations in some instances, while certain pirate stations have become like the old, legitimate stations. By way of an analogy, the same thing is happening with digital terrestrial television and Internet TV services. What’s interesting is the impact this is having on the ecosystem. What are the proprietary software publishers doing? Either they oppose the movement head on – which is getting harder and harder – or they adapt to it, by including Open Source in their own portfolios. The best example of this recently is Microsoft, which has understood that it is better to go with the flow – even to ride the wave – than to resist it. Conversely, boundaries between what is Open Source and what is proprietary are rapidly breaking down. These days, some Open Source products are actually more expensive than their proprietary competitors! This will be a real challenge for the Open Source model in years to come: understanding how to manage growth while still respecting its fundamental values. Knowing how to navigate between the original, community Open Source model and the more recent, commercial one. There are risks involved in both situations: on the one hand there is the ability of Open Source solutions to meet users’ needs in terms of ergonomics and ease of use; on the other there is the risk of disappointing many IT Departments in terms of price. A reasonable middle ground has to be found.
One of the conclusions of the CIO Summit was that Open Source plays a major role in driving innovation and in protecting sovereignty: a way of taking back control over your information systems. What’s your experience on the ground?
At Bull, we have believed this for many years now. That is why we have put Open Source and interoperability at the heart of our strategy as ‘Architect of an Open World™’. In an increasingly globalized world, organizations have to innovate and differentiate their offerings to win over their customers. Innovation is about developing real potential for differentiation. The Open Source ecosystem, with its constantly shifting nature, creates a real momentum in terms of innovation, which is characterized by the 4,000 or so new projects registered every month on sourceforge.net, the mother ship of Open Source projects. Our challenge is developing our ability to integrate and assemble these components and Open Source solutions to develop specific, customized offerings, which are innovative in their area of business, powerful, secure… and which enable our customers to ‘make a real difference’. Because of its modularity, respect for standards and the many components that are available, Open Source is an excellent way of opening up the way for new ideas. It is a powerful means of mass customization, accessible to business of every size. With Open Source, bespoke solutions are not just reserved for the top of the range. What is more, it also appears that Open Source is a very useful catalyst for top-end solutions: we have experienced this ourselves with our bullx™ supercomputers (whose software is based on Open Source) which were named as the best supercomputers in the world in 2009.
In your experience, what are the keys to success when it comes to Open Source software?
Two things are critical to success. The first is not to be dogmatic. You need to know how to mix Open Source and proprietary software, on a case-by-case basis, depending on needs. The ‘everything Open Source’ approach is not appropriate for all the issues that our customers face. From the outset, Bull has chosen to ‘tap into the world’s intelligence’, and then selected the best components in order to bring them together into the best solution for each specific context. The second key thing is to actively contribute to the ecosystem. Faced with the Open Source revolution, some oppose to it, others raid it for their own purposes. We prefer the third way: contributing to it. Open Source will only be viable if the major players also get involved and invest in it, putting their R&D resources, their technological know-how, their partner network at its disposal. This is what we are doing at Bull, by increasing our R&D contributions (to Linux, Java, OW2, JBoss/Red Hat…), making increasingly widespread use of Open Source in our own Services Centers – based on the principle of ‘Virtual Shoring’ – by helping our customers integrate Open Source into their information systems and supporting the use of Open Source via our partner network: Intel, EMC, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP…
Open Source has changed a great deal in recent years. What are the key challenges for the future, for IT Departments?
First and foremost to use Open Source software more systematically! Or indeed to clearly identify the instances where it is being used, which they would not otherwise know about in their Departments! Open Source has gained widespread acceptance. But it is not yet used everywhere, and for CIOs it offers a real driver for innovation and competiveness in the years to come. And although one has to take issues of security and legal risks into account, as you do on any project, these risks should not be overestimated. On the contrary, one must learn to take other very real issues into account – especially those relating to operational running (too often forgotten) or user ergonomics – by providing change management support and suppressing some functionality which might otherwise lead to difficulties. IT Departments also have to build up their expertise in collaborative ways of working. Sometimes this leads to a change of face for IT Departments, operating in a more horizontal than vertical collaborative mode and bringing on board colleagues who become ‘digital natives’. In order to succeed, it is better to call on in-depth experience of Open Source, implement appropriate methodologies to deploy packaged, properly controlled and effective solutions, and know how to manage the change properly. At the end of the day, using Open Source is a question of risk management, just like any other IT project. This is where the expertise of a systems integrator is useful, and that is what we bring to our customers.
To sum up, if you had to pinpoint a key trend for the future of Open Source, what would you choose?
These days the majority of IT Departments simply want to use Open Source to speed up their own internal proprietary developments or reduce their costs. One of our customers has called this “capitalist use of Open Source”, usage based on a financial rationale. Others want to go further, to contribute to or even create open solutions. But even if they are still only in a small minority at the moment, they are going to be increasingly prevalent. Open Source is an excellent way of sharing application developments and promoting standards. In the IT world, players like us (with OW2, NovaForge), IBM (with Eclipse), Google (with Chrome, Wave…), etc. have amply demonstrated this. In telecoms things are buzzing, with Android and now Symbian and MeeGo. Why don’t organizations from industry, or the worlds of banking or healthcare, do the same thing with their sector-specific solutions? Their users expect new, innovative and cost-competitive services. More and more of these kinds of sector-specific initiatives are appearing, like BibLibre for libraries; Oya, an agreement which brings together 11 food producers around Apache’s Open For Business (OFBiz) ERP platform; and Etude, a management software solution for law firms developed by a lawyer and loaded onto SourceForge, and of course Adullact1, which has already shown the way forward for the public sector. Others are following. Periods of crisis are always good times for new ideas that might have seemed incongruous or eccentric a few years back. In the space of just 15 years, Open Source has revolutionized the technologies and business processes of the IT world. Its penetration as sector-specific solutions is only just beginning!