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Free (with strings attached): Keeping track of open-source code

Mary K. Pratt | May 7, 2013
Open-source software is free, flexible and adaptable, but lax oversight can obliterate the benefits. Here's how IT is keeping track.

The most attractive aspects of open-source software can also be the most problematic: It's free and it's just a click away.

That means just about anyone in the office can introduce open source code into the company's IT infrastructure.

It's tempting for users to think, "It's free, so no big deal. IT won't be billed for it." But IT still has to manage open-source software -- and that can't happen if IT doesn't know it's there.

"It's never a good idea to have no idea what your engineers or other employees are bringing into the company. The risk might be limited, but if [people start] sucking in whatever they want, there can be issues. Open-source software comes with all sorts of strings attached," says Clark D. Asay, a visiting assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University's Dickinson School of Law, whose research focuses on legal issues relating to the Internet and arising from technological change.

Each piece of open-source software has specific license requirements and possible restrictions. At the same time, the software should be documented and tracked to ensure that it's working properly. The problem is, many IT organizations aren't applying good governance practices to open-source software.

"The overwhelming majority of open-source assets used in corporate IT are either significantly undermanaged or completely unmanaged," says Mark Driver, an analyst at Gartner.

Driver acknowledges that management of open-source software is improving. He says surveys conducted in 2008 found that 75% of Global 1000 companies didn't have policies governing open-source software. Now, he says, 75% of companies reporting to him say that they do indeed have polices in place, although Driver says these polices aren't adequate.

"When I look at those policies, the significant majority are ineffective," he says, explaining that many require voluntary compliance or apply only to certain parts of the organization.

Yet CIOs face real dangers if they're not properly managing their open-source assets. They could get into legal tangles for failing to adhere to license restrictions. They could expose the infrastructure to security threats. Or they could find themselves scrambling to fix glitches in software they can't quickly identify because they have no reliable record of what it is.

Steven Grandchamp has seen companies face serious problems because of lax oversight of open-source software. "It's proliferated so much and so fast that now you have organizations using it and they don't exactly know what they have or where it is. And if you don't even know you have it, then you can't manage or mitigate the risk," says Grandchamp, CEO of OpenLogic, a Broomfield, Colo., company that helps organizations manage open-source software.

For example, one OpenLogic client had problems with a back-end system that processed gift cards for a large retailer. The system crashed just before Christmas, leaving IT rushing to find the source of the glitch. Turns out there was an implementation problem with a piece of open source code that a developer -- who had long since left the company -- hadn't documented.


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