Giving proprietary vendors a run for their money

A new business model has emerged based on the concept of products that are community-based and available with the source code at no cost – the open source movement. Mozilla’s Firefox web browser, or the Linux operating system are two of the best known examples and the open source effect is now making itself felt in the integration marketplace, where Mule from MuleSource has become established as a popular ESB and integration platform.

As businesses look to become less dependent on software vendors to solve their integration issues there is a groundswell of support for open source solutions. For companies already using open source, a survey of IT decision makers by Forrester earlier this year found that 51% were using it in mission-critical applications. This shows that open source is being embraced as a viable alternative to traditional vendor licensed solutions.

Business integration challenges

Integrating the business, at the underlying IT level, is a major challenge. Companies have been struggling with the problem for years, while vendors have delivered ever more complex and sophisticated software to address the issues. The driving forces for integration are, compelling – more efficient, streamlined processes, faster execution and reaction to market changes, improved leverage of existing IT investments and assets, a reduced IT cost base built on shared services, all contributing to mitigation of business risk.

Integration is such a complex issue that there is considerable business risk attached, especially when the upfront investments are so extensive. The market is also flooded with multiple approaches and products, such as service-oriented architecture (SOA), event-driven architecture (EDA), middleware, message brokers and enterprise service buses (ESB), and it becomes increasingly difficult to choose which approach to take.

Why open source

The immediate advantage of open source solutions is the absence of up front licence costs. However, there are a variety of additional reasons why the open source approach is becoming increasingly important. A lack of vendor lock in, not being tied to Microsoft, access to the source code, flexibility and adaptability, community development and solutions built on open standards are frequently cited as major influencing factors.

Open source solutions are by definition offered to all. This presents an opportunity to avoid at least some level of software license costs, although it must be remembered that software is typically provided on an ‘as is’ basis – support comes from the community that is working with it. If the open source software is going to be used in any serious fashion, support will be required but the overall supported license cost is still likely to be much less than going with a commercial software vendor’s solution.

At the more subtle level, open source projects tend to work in terms of frameworks, where the basic skeleton is implemented together with plug-ins to add necessary functions. This incremental investment model is attractive from a risk perspective, ensuring that claimed benefits can be validated as each stage of investment is put in place. The procurement process is also simplified, meaning new functions can be tried out without additional investment, as the source code can be downloaded by developers and put into immediate practice.

When buying commercial software, software vendors tend to bundle functionality to justify a higher price and companies often end up buying a full stack of software functionality regardless of how much it is actually required at the time - a simple example is that most people only ever use a fraction of the power of a tool such as Excel. This results in higher up-front investment in proprietary solutions. With open source software, it is easier to simply take on the software needed at the time, and then add to this as and when required.

As the source code is made available this offers a high degree of flexibility and adaptability, allowing the user to add developments to the source and make local changes. This also offers a wide range of internal support and control options which is of particular interest for companies with stringent security, performance and availability requirements, such as sensitive government departments, companies associated with the defense industry and critical banking or payment infrastructure systems.

Most open source projects are based on a community of interest. Developers across the world may be involved in improving and expanding the product, either individually or within user-based teams. The philosophy of open source is that whenever someone makes an enhancement to the product, these changes will be made available to the rest of the community. With an active community, software development can be driven along at a pace that commercial vendors will find difficult to match. However, this must be offset against the increased reliance on what is essentially a voluntary community.

The integration market

The integration market has evolved over time and the requirement to integrate applications has grown exponentially, driven by business needs such as handling mergers and acquisitions, streamlining processes and increasing efficiency and customer responsiveness. Initially the basic middleware communications layer was extended with message brokers to provide more benefits at the application level, delivering value-added activities such as data format transformations, intelligent rules-based routing and pre-built application adapters.

As more and more users started to realize that integration was a key component of business success, the standards movement embraced integration. One result was the emergence of web services, a standards-based way to describe and invoke pieces of code. This started to gather pace with the lighter-weight, standards-based integration of the Enterprise Service Bus and service-oriented architecture (SOA).

Web services standards were supported by ESBs, and in addition they provided middleware functionality and basic mediation functions like routing and transformation, but the price-point was much lower than a traditional vendor solution. Linked to the ESB development was the enormous surge in popularity of SOA, an architecture where programs are assembled into business services that can be easily shared by multiple users. ESBs provided one way to handle the integration needs inherent in the SOA concept.

Open source and the integration market

Businesses remain under great pressure to integrate their IT systems in order to deliver a supporting structure for business operations that is flexible, responsive, agile and cost-effective. At the general level, there are a number of areas where the attractions of open source overlap the needs of the integration marketplace.

The first of these areas stems from the fact that integration is expensive. This is because the broker-based architecture is of the ‘hub-and-spoke’ type, where all flow between components has to pass through a central hub. Therefore, even if the need is only to join two applications, the same hub is required as would be needed to join thousands.

The cost of this hub is often a major inhibitor to initial integration projects, often running into hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even though ESBs offer a cheaper approach, an ESB license will still be required at each node to be integrated. These licenses may only cost around $10-50K each but this still represents a substantial outlay. SOA is no different, with an SOA infrastructure needing to include a registry, some sort of communications vehicle such as an ESB and various other tools.

In contrast, the open source approach provides an opportunity to get going quickly with little in the way of cost. Admittedly, when projects move further towards production, users may want to put some sort of external support contract in place to increase the level of business assurance and reduce risk, but the initially free software seems to remove the entry barrier to starting to experiment with integration at least.

Integration software frequently plays a mission-critical role, as more applications are integrated together, the integration software forms a ‘central nervous system’ for the enterprise, and any failure can have serious impact. At first glance, it may not be obvious how this issue relates to open source, but as mentioned previously, many organizations have substantial technical resources and having the source of the integration software might be very attractive. For these types of companies, support can probably be provided in a more immediate fashion by using internal resources, but this is only possible with an open source environment.

One of the particular challenges of integration is the need to build adapters to talk to existing applications, packages and technology environments. Integration software vendors provide adapters for the most commonly used ones, such as SAP and PeopleSoft, but applications with a less general appeal such as specialized industry or vertical solutions are often left out. This is because the commercial vendor will concentrate on the biggest potential markets.

Industry analysts Lustratus estimates that between 50-75% of integration costs relate to the building the necessary adapters. However this is exactly the sort of area where the community-based approach comes into its own. In this environment, a company developing an adapter for a specific package could publish this for other users to see and employ. This has the potential to result in a rapidly growing pool of adapters covering a wide range of applications and needs.

Conclusion

Whilst some will argue that the open source movement is here to stay, one could argue that its impact is only just now being felt and that it will have an increasingly important influence on any market in which software is still sold under traditional licensing models, just as has happened in the integration space. There are challenges to be overcome, not least of which is that revenues lag behind market distribution and penetration. However, as open source reaches critical business maturity it is well positioned to truly give proprietary vendors a run for their money. And this is a race some vendors will lose.