OSCON Keynotes: What's Open Source Good For?

by David Sims

What is Open Source software good for? Where is its place in the larger ecosystem of software development? Two speakers -- both from outside the traditional Open Source community -- offered their perspectives on Wednesday morning at the Open Source Conference.

Fred Baker, Cisco Fellow and former chairman of the IETF, placed open source software at the top of the food chain, but appealed to its developers to work with commercial vendors. Open Source development, he said, is good at rapid protyping and quick bug fixes. "Open Source is a good way to get the right features quickly."

On the downside, he said, it's weak on the features that would make it usable by a wider consumer and business base: documentation, support, and packaging. These limitations restrict the size of the audience for Open Source products, and point the way towards downstream development by commercial companies that make their revenue by these value adds. "I'm not going to give my mother Perl."

Even at a higher end of technical user (assuming that Baker's mother isn't a system administrator), Baker suggested that features like good documentation and accountability of the development process are important. For example, companies that rely on certifications such as ISO 9001, must show the origins of the software their business relies on -- something that Open Source projects don't package as nicely as do corporate vendors.

A symbol of the Open Source community's resistance to such embellishments is the RTFM (Read The Fine Manual) attitude. While admitting that he, too, wishes every user would read the manual, he knows they don't, and even when they do, the manuals often leave a lot out. Reliable and easy technical support, a telephone call away, is a must.

Fred Baker.
Fred Baker, Cisco Fellow and former chairman of the IETF.

W. Phillip Moore.
W. Phillip Moore, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.

But W. Philip Moore, who spoke right after Baker, disagreed that commercial software vendors do a better job at technical support than do Open Source development communities. Moore, the executive director of enterprise infrastructure applications at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, said he gets better results working with an external network of open source hackers than he gets from a technical support 800 number where too often, "the person on the other end of the line can't even spell the name of the product."

The other great advantage, Moore said, was that he can modify the software to suit Morgan Stanley's needs, without having to coerce a corporate vendor to make the changes, at their pace, and with a charge. Moore's team is responsible for coordinating a global network for Morgan Stanley in 52 cities on 6 continents. ("And when the first stock exchange opens in Antarctica, we'll go there.")

He predicted that Linux systems will be increasingly important to their operations in the next few years, due largely to "the commoditization of hardware." As inexpensive Intel boxes become more competitive with higher end machines from Sun, he said, Intel will become a more attractive platform. And since the migration from Solaris is easier to Linux than to NT, this shift opens the door for more Linux systems.

Unspoken in the space between the two presentations is the business needs of end users whose technical ability lies somewhere between Baker's mother and Moore, with his master's degree in physics. Moore, who clearly relishes his engagement with the core developers of Perl, is eager to engage Open Source hackers who can help him understand and craft software optimized for Morgan Stanley's needs. But a huge body of IT professionals are either unaccustomed to (or unwilling to) cultivate that level of communication. It's this group that Baker speaks for, noting their business need for reliable, predictable, documented software, complete with a 24/7 tech support line.

Moore said he understands this need: "Some companies really like to have that 800 number -- even though it's worthless. ... I don't see anyone in the commercial world coming up with software that's going to solve our problems. Open Source is looking pretty good in this niche."

David Sims was the editorial director of the O'Reilly Network.

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