May 2008

"The difference between the successful open source implementation, in which the value of open source is realized for a company, and the unsuccessful one, in which the struggle to use open source is not worth the effort, amounts to knowing your problem, knowing the software, and knowing yourself."

Open Source for the Enterprise

Of all the choices available when selecting open source software (OSS), which ones are likely to meet business and technology requirements? What tools, if any, exist to help companies assess the enterprise readiness of a proposed open source solution? This article introduces the Enterprise Open Source (EOS) Directory, a resource which was designed to help corporations accustomed to evaluating commercial closed source software find enterprise-ready open source solutions.

Evaluating Open Source Software

OSS continues to gain momentum worldwide due to its low entry barrier, high quality and customizability. More information technology (IT) decision makers are favouring OSS over traditional packaged software as it becomes more aligned with organizational needs. OSS is now part of the IT mainstream, supporting many of the world's largest companies and government institutions. The role of OSS continues to expand, from deep within the infrastructure to the key applications that drive a business.

Despite its increased adoption, the perception of OSS as being "enterprise-grade" continues to be called into question. One reason is that the evaluation and selection of OSS is significantly different from the traditional approaches that have been used in the enterprise for decades. Proprietary software vendors have sales and marketing teams to inform their customer base and provide detailed responses to RFIs (Requests for Information), RFPs (Requests for Proposal) or RFQs (Requests for Quotation). To simplify the search, there are usually a few obvious market leaders or customers can choose from a short list identified by independent analysts. Unlike proprietary software, there are hundreds of thousands of open source projects, and the software provided by these projects is often designed to address a specialized need.

Projects are usually run by individuals or small, unknown companies without the capacity or local presence to engage in traditional one-on-one sales and marketing relationships. This is one reason why costs are so low. But it also puts an added burden on the customer, who is responsible for exploring a sea of choices to identify a likely candidate.

Current Environment Supports Developers

There are currently more than 200,000 open source projects, making it difficult to identify those which are appropriate for enterprise use from the multitude of others that range from untested concepts to varying degrees of usability and maturity. It is time-consuming for most corporate IT departments to navigate through the available options as open source addresses a wide range of needs and originates from many different sources.

For a fast-paced enterprise, finding the right software in such a large and diverse marketplace is problematic. While OSS can be readily downloaded and analyzed, few companies have the resources or interest to conduct in-depth evaluations or to scan a large technology landscape.

Online communities and repositories often employ ratings that are based on popularity such as the number of downloads or amount of activity. This criterion may be of interest to developers, but it does not indicate that a product is enterprise-ready.

Support for Corporate IT

In January 2007, Optaros released its Open Source Catalog containing reviews of 262 projects. Following overwhelming global interest, the Optaros EOS Directory was created.

The EOS Directory provides a constantly updated list of the most relevant enterprise-ready open source offerings. The free online directory includes platforms, components, frameworks and solutions which have been evaluated and pre-qualified by Optaros as a neutral, expert third party. Corporate IT staff can receive advice, learn what others are doing, and interact with the open source community. The EOS Directory includes the community-building and knowledge-sharing features of Web 2.0 to meet the needs of both business enterprises and developers.

The EOS Directory does not contain all open source projects. Rather, it lists only those projects that Optaros believes are worth serious consideration for enterprise deployment--in short, quality over quantity. Optaros ratings are based on the company's worldwide consulting and integration experience, substantial research and evaluations, as well as interaction with open source communities and companies. Products are rated using criteria relevant to corporate IT departments such as functional richness, maturity, and competitive trends. The directory also includes independent ratings provided by software users to provide additional perspectives.

The directory reduces the time and cost of researching open source options, and provides an incentive for developers to deliver superior products. Subsequently, it provides an essential reference for enterprise customers, as well as valuable visibility for developers. The EOS Directory covers the major software domains: i) infrastructure such as operating systems and systems management tools; ii) application development such as programming languages, database technologies, and integration technologies; iii) infrastructure solutions such as enterprise content management and business process management; and iv) business applications such as customer relationship management and office applications.

More than 300 technologies, solutions and platforms are listed. For each project, the reader can find a short description, the license model, support models, four ratings representing enterprise readiness, functionality, maturity and community, as well as a trend indicator and a link to the project page. Using this information, it is easy to come up with a short list of technologies to be investigated further.

EOS Directory Criteria

In the EOS Directory, enterprise readiness is determined based on the rating provided by four indicators: i) the functionality; ii) the community; iii) the maturity; and iv) the perceived trend. The individual ratings are seen as an indication and not as absolute decision criteria. These four indicators can be summarized as follows:

  1. Functionality: in most situations, a product's functionality is driven by what commercial products have to offer. The rating of the software can range from covering what is required by a typical midsize or large enterprise, to having large gaps in functionality but providing a good basis for further development.
  2. Community: for the long term success of an open source project, it is important that there is an active and well-supported community behind the project. In commercial open source products, this community is often the software development unit of the company behind the product. The input and contributions of external people is less important and influential. This can be seen as a risk, especially when a company is small or has limited funds available.
  3. Maturity: to put a software product in production, it needs to be able to run in a stable and error-free manner. Maturity measures the quality and robustness of a software product. The rating of the software ranges from being a strong, high quality solution that is stable and meets advanced performance expectations, to a poor solution, only usable for test and demonstration purposes.
  4. Trend: open source projects and products develop quickly and dynamically. It is important to understand whether a product is becoming more feature-rich and robust, whether there is no improvement, or whether the quality and richness is decreasing compared to the competition. The trend category indicates the expected future progress of the software and whether or not the solution is progressing along most of the criteria and growing in importance overall.

Based on the above ratings, the "enterprise readiness" is determined. The Optaros rating for enterprise readiness indicates how capable an open source product is to cope with the needs and requirements of midsize and large enterprises and organizations. Optaros rates products using one to four stars and a product without a star would mean it cannot be recommended for enterprises and therefore is not part of the directory. Of course, there might be many additional open source projects out there that would deserve one or more stars but still have not been added to the directory. Optaros balances the directory by including primarily the products that serve a broad range of situations and find significant adoption. To continuously extend the directory, users can propose new projects to be added to the repository.

Better Choices, More Informed Buyers

While many open source products and projects do not measure up to the EOS Directory standards, they can still be used in certain situations. Not all enterprise-ready products and platforms in the open source ecosystem are listed in the directory but it remains a subjective selection aimed at helping enterprise decision makers identify OSS that best meets their requirements.

The directory has become one of the key references and information sources in the evolving OSS landscape as products change and improve based on their received ratings. The most promising trend is the substantial increase in higher ratings. Companies considering open source alternatives to existing software or planning a new project are likely to find the online directory a valuable resource.

The statistics of the site show a strong interest of enterprises in open source infrastructure and business applications. The two most popular sub-domains on the EOS Directory are "Enterprise Content Management" and "CRM, ERP and eCommerce", capturing 27% of all the research requests. Much interest is also seen in projects in subdomains such as collaboration, web servers and systems management.

Planned Enhancements

The EOS Directory is developed following the "perpetual beta" principle. Naturally, the EOS Directory has been implemented based on OSS, following the Optaros Assembly Method (OptAM). Key components include PHP, symfony, MySQL, Wordpress and phpBB. The functionality and the user interface are continuously improved and extended.

The next major release will include tagging for people to categorize open source projects using individual terms. OpenID will allow people to easily sign up and web services will allow other sites to access and display the content in the EOS Directory. Lastly, to perpetuate the instructional nature of the directory, the open source educational content will be continuously extended and updated.

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