The division between proprietary software vendors and open-source providers is not as clear as some industry players perceive it to be. As more enterprises consider adopting open source technologies, even traditional software vendors such as Microsoft have taken steps in responding to such customer needs.
"Open source is not a product but an approach to software development," said Matthew Hardman, platform strategy manager at Microsoft Singapore. "Microsoft does not compete with open source, just as Nike does not compete with running."
Hardman said the software giant seeks to provide the 'best possible platform' for open source applications to run. "We believe that enterprises and vendors should have a choice of software development methodology, and open source is one such choice."
The platform strategy manager noted however, that Microsoft will compete with open source-based providers, just as it also competes with other proprietary vendors.
According to Hardman, Microsoft has contributed to technologies that are deemed open source. "PHP, a technology used to build web pages, ran into multiple issues around performance and scalability on Windows Server 2003," he said. "With the introduction of Windows Server 2008 and host technology such as Fast CGI, we are now able to run PHP up to 200 per cent faster than Linux."
Hardman said the company has contributed code to PHP libraries for database support, making it easier for PHP developers to connect to Microsoft databases.
"Linux is open source, but open source is not Linux," Hardman noted. "PHP was designed to make it easy for people to build web pages, not specifically to run only on Linux."
As part of its open-source strategy, the company hosts a website called CodePlex, where Microsoft employees and the developer community work on some 6,000 open-source projects. "Examples of such projects include the AJAX Control Toolkit, SugarCRM, .Net, and code that can interact with the 'World of Warcraft'," Hardman said.
CodePlex includes more than just projects that Microsoft has released, according to Hardman. "It's a hosting platform where people can create and share projects, and we have also used it to share some of our technology to encourage further innovation."
Some five million developers worldwide have created various applications using Microsoft platform technologies such as Windows, .Net, Windows Server and Microsoft Xbox, according to the software giant.
Different business models
Unlike Red Hat, Microsoft does not have a subscription-based model for open-source solutions. "When we want to share source code, we will share it for free," Hardman said. "For example, if someone took the AJAX Control Toolkit, embedded it into a project and commercialised it, that's fine with us."
"It's not so much an issue of opening up the source code," Hardman said. "Rather, it's about how to make open-source technology work for the enterprise, without it having to change its existing platform or infrastructure."
In short, interoperability among solutions, whether open source or not, is very important, Hardman noted.
Other open-source issues
Enterprises need to consider several other issues when deciding whether to adopt open-source technologies, according to Hardman. Knowledge about the level of support provided by the service provider, such as ready availability of security patches, is crucial.
"It's not enough to only have technical expertise in building the open-source solution," Hardman said. "Business knowledge is also essential to ensure the solution works for the enterprise."
Additionally, the open-source provider must be confident that the contributing community can ensure adequate information security. "There must be no weak links in security features," Hardman said.
Open source and SaaS
According to Gartner's State of Open Source report for 2008, software-as-a-service (SaaS) will eclipse open source as the preferred enterprise IT cost-cutting method by 2012.
The report stated that both the open source and SaaS business models price by subscription, operate on low profit margins and can reduce enterprise IT costs. Gartner contends however, that SaaS reduces enterprise requirements for IT technical skills, while open source tends to increase such requirements.
Gery Messer, president of Red Hat Asia Pacific, disagreed: "Open source does not increase the requirement for IT technical skills within the enterprise."
Messer said Red Hat's subscription model provides enterprises with a predictable cost structure and allows them to outsource IT development and support requirements.
"Open source is an infrastructure platform on which many enterprise applications run," Messer said. "Its community-based accelerated innovation approach multiplies software development capacity many times over, providing enterprises better, more innovative solutions."
Messer agreed however, that like open-source software (OSS), SaaS can also help enterprises, especially small- and medium-sized businesses, cut IT costs.
Defining open source
"While I agree with Red Hat's general definition of SaaS, I wouldn't agree with their definition of open source," said Brian Prentice, Gartner's research vice president for emerging trends and technologies. "Open source is not just an infrastructure platform, it can be a lot more than that and is."
According to Prentice, Gartner's definition of open source is software governed under a licence agreement recognised by the Open Source Initiative (OSI). OSI is a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting open-source software. "It is the licence agreement, and specifically the rights to modify and redistribute the code, which is the most important component of open source."
As a co-author of the Gartner Open Source report, Prentice explained that OSS tends to increase skills requirements because new technologies require new skills in an organisation.
"If, for example, my organisation uses Windows Server, the addition of Linux, regardless of distribution, would require new skills," Prentice said. "If I am currently using a mix of Oracle 11g and SQL Server, and then introduced MySQL, that needs a new set of skills."
Prentice said SaaS tends to avoid this problem because it is "run on someone else's infrastructure".
"I concede there is some nuance in this area particularly as we start looking at platform-as-a-service capabilities like Force.com from salesforce.com," he noted.