March 2008

"The majority of open source attention goes to the hobbyist market and large enterprises, and it's much more difficult for smaller companies to find what they need."

Maria Winslow

There is no shortage of data and results that demonstrate that open source software (OSS), when adopted with appropriate best practices, can significantly lower costs and provide quality IT (information technology) solutions, especially for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). For example, the Consortium for Open Source Software in Public Administration (COSPA) project demonstrated that by using best practices for OSS procurement, not only was software acquisition cheaper, but the evaluation of tangible and intangible costs over 5 years demonstrated a cost reduction ranging from 20% to 60%. The EU study on the impact of OSS indicates that OSS can reduce software research and development costs by 36%, while the INES project found that companies adopting OSS increased profits and reduced time to market and development costs in 80% of the trials.

If OSS is so advantageous, why is so little use of it perceived in the marketplace, especially among SMEs? We present the preliminary results of an European project called OpenTTT to improve the adoption rate and study the effectiveness of best practices in OSS adoption within small and medium enterprises.

The OpenTTT Project

The OpenTTT project is an European project devoted to finding strategies and validating best practices to facilitate the take-up and adoption of OSS, with a specific focus on SMEs. The core of the project is overcoming barriers to adoption, by replicating and adapting the best practices of the IRC (Innovation Relay Centres), a European network that has for many years helped European companies in the technology mediation and technology transfer process. The IRC is a large (71 centres in 33 countries) network of technology transfer centers that since 1995 has supported more than 55,000 companies in technology selection, transfer, and adoption.The approach is that of mediation; that is, the identification of technology needs and the appropriate matching with the technology offers already identified in the internal database.

OpenTTT was created in 2006 to test the hypothesis that the IRC model can be specialized and modified to support open source technology transfer, and that the unique properties of open source licenses can be leveraged to improve the process. The partners are a multidisciplinary group of companies, universities, and technology transfer centers from France, Italy, Germany and Bulgaria.

Barriers to Adoption

Our target is facilitating the first adoption, as several research projects highlighted the fact that after an initial adoption, the majority of companies are satisfied with the adopted OSS solutions and plan to extend the experiment to additional areas. Thus, the project is focusing on overcoming the initial adoption barrier, that from non-users (denial) to users (use) as seen in the Ladder Model of OSS Adoption:

Figure 1: Ladder Model of OSS Adoption (adapted from Carbone P., Value Derived from Open Source is a Function of Maturity Levels)

The analysis of the difficulties encountered by companies in the OSS adoption was performed through analysis of literature, workshops and a specific encounter with companies participating in a regional industry association ICT (information and communications technology) club. The difficulties can be classified as problems with:

  • the identification of needs, and the repercussions of planned changes into the firm's ICT infrastructure
  • finding the most suitable OSS package (or packages) that can help in solving the ICT needs
  • finding information and support
  • identifying local partners and training
  • installation and configuration
  • integrating the OSS solution with external ICT systems and standards
  • acceptance or end-users resisting change

The problems fall in three different areas: exploration of the solution space, the actual migration itself, and managing the post-migration environment and its interaction with external systems and the expectations of end-users.

OpenTTT Findings

The OpenTTT project tried to address all of these concerns, in a way that is non-intrusive and designed to be accessible to all kinds of companies, independent of size or technological capability.The first activity was the design of a specific identification process, adapted from the IRC standardized one. This included the design and test of Technology Request and Technology Offer forms, with several examples available from the OpenTTT website. The forms are adapted from the official IRC ones by adding OSS-specific fields and removing unnecessary requests. The forms have been used in the audit process of over 90 companies across Europe. Divided into areas, these companies represent: energy and environment, logistics, industrial production, and public administration.

The second step entailed the classification of requests into horizontal requests, which are needs common to a large number of companies, and vertical requests, which are specific to a single industry sector. As an example, most companies expressed an interest in software for project management, groupware (both messaging and calendaring or coordination software), infrastructural software (security, backups, network and system management), ERP (enterprise resource planning) and CRM (customer relationship management). It is interesting to note that companies expressed an expectation not only in the lower overall cost, but also in the added flexibility, and openness of the open source solutions.

The vertical solutions were much more specific in terms of desired functionalities. Examples include software for physical simulation and optimization for polymer physics, thermal transfer modeling of buildings, logistic planning and optimization, and machine maintenance software. A complete list is available.

In parallel, requests to OSS communities and commercial vendors were performed to create a list of what has been called the "developers club".This is a list of companies and consultants working in the field of OSS-based services. Invitations were circulated across the IRC network mailing lists to collect potential participants. Individual competencies were collected, along with geographic area of activity, approximate company size, contacts, and participation within OSS projects. Using an internal database of OSS projects and the results of previous EU projects (like SPIRIT, AMOS and others), we created an initial list of potential solutions. We then prepared a software catalog that was circulated among the project participants and later released as a Creative Commons document.

The most interesting part is the next step, called matching. For those needs that can be immediately satisfied, potential users are provided with a list of matching solutions and contacts for those registered in the developers club that are compatible with the request in competence and geographic area. This way, users are relieved of the task of finding software, evaluating it, and finding potential support. At the same time, the project does not take part in any commercial transaction, and as such is not perceived as a potential competitor to those companies that offer OSS services. In this sense, the OpenTTT mediation is a pure catalyst.

What happens to the needs that are not satisfied with existing OSS solutions? The matching process continues, with the identification of pieces of the solution that fill as much as possible the user request, and the identification of the missing functionalities. This information is passed on to the users and the developers, who are then free to propose a commercial transaction for creating the missing functionalities. Pooling together similar requests allows for a much lower price per company for obtaining the desired functionality, and the consultant can complement the development with the provision of additional services like training and support.

Lessons Learned

As the project now approaches the final stages, what have we discovered? First, while there is a significant interest in OSS by companies, there is no single place to look for information. Some regions do have OSS competence centers, but most of the European ones are designed to offer services for public administrators, and provide limited support for commercial actors. The other discovery is that the number of OSS companies is still quite limited; as an example, in Italy the estimates are of around 200 companies. Yet, many traditional software vendors and independent software vendors (ISVs) are offering open source services, despite the lack of any mention on their web sites. In fact, several companies were able to satisfy their support needs directly from their original support providers.

The most important discovery is the fact that the need for the development of missing pieces is quite limited. Of 91 technology requests, only 5 were not immediately satisfiable, and required further analysis. This is a testament to the fact that OSS is mature enough to sustain most SME's needs, and that the range and scope of tools available allows even very specialized requests to be satisfied. This is supported by findings of other projects like economically effective both as a licensing and development model.

Recommended Resources

FLOSSMETRICS/OpenTTT Guide for SMEs

Economic Impact of FLOSS on Innovation

Open Source Business Organisations of Europe

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