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Sizing up open source: Not so simple

Stacy Collett | May 7, 2013
Choosing open-source software is more complicated than picking traditional software. Is your IT department prepared to contribute code fixes to the community?

The well-established Linux community, for example, has operated under founder Linus Torvalds' "benevolent dictatorship" since its inception. But developers of new projects often keep tight control of their communities as well.

WibiData, a Hadoop-based user analytics company that helps organizations build big data applications, provides part of its software stack as open source to make it easier for developers to build big data applications on an HBase NoSQL database.

"Right now, 99.5% of the software is written by our own team," says Aaron Kimball, chief architect at WibiData. "It takes a relatively long time to get people to use it, and for every 50 people who use it, one might start helping to contribute."

Then there are the radically democratic models. Developers who donate a product to the Apache Software Foundation, for instance, must reach a "lazy consensus" with the community, which means "you need some number of individuals to give your idea a thumbs-up and for nobody to give it an explicit thumbs-down -- and if they do, they are obligated to work with you to make the changes," Kimball says. "It's designed to slow things down in some ways so all users can be invested in this and through consensus arrive at the best solution." Although the developers who participate most actively in writing source code are expected to be the ones who are listened to first, he adds.

Is It Better to Give Than to Receive?

IT departments might think that when they buy into open source they also have to actively participate in the community to ensure its survival. But that's not always the case.

With widely used open-source products like Red Hat, "[vendors are] very much in control of the community," Nystrom says. And while they do take from the community, "they still control the product," he adds. "They're not dependent on the community for the product to be stable and go forward."

Sprint Nextel currently relies on Red Hat consultants as its liaison with the open-source community, but Krause believes the company will need less hand-holding as time goes by. "We will eventually move away from Red Hat being our support system and work directly with the open-source community," he says.

For users of smaller open-source libraries or projects, communities are much more important.

"There's just a group of people who put this together, and there might not be a commercial entity behind it," Nystrom says. In these cases, developers are expected to contribute, but what if they refuse?

One open-source user says it's hard to contribute, or "pay it back," when the product is industry-specific.

When Hallmark Services Corp. (HSC) in Naperville, Ill., was overhauling its back-end systems, it bought a license for the open-source code of Healthation, a commercial off-the-shelf system for administrating healthcare business transactions.


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