Open Source: Both Bigger And Less Relevant Than You Imagine


Every so often a study comes along that is so bad—so off the mark—that it’s impossible to ignore. Or, at least, so difficult to understand that different news organizations can walk away with wildly varying understandings of its findings.

Such is the case with the Ponemon Institute’s survey of 1,400 technology professionals, which according to some outlets found big companies “cautious” and “slow” to embrace open source. Others, looking at the exact same data, found respondents “generally positive” to open source. (The survey was sponsored by Zimbra, which provide of open-source messaging and collaboration software.)

The reality, of course, is that both are right, because open source is both hard and easy, depending on where large organizations try to use it.

Open Source For Me Or Thee? It Depends

Open source has climbed in popularity over the past decade. Today, as Cloudera’s Mike Olson posits, “No dominant platform-level software infrastructure has emerged in the last ten years in closed-source, proprietary form.” If it’s infrastructure, it’s open. From Hadoop to MongoDB, from MySQL to Spark, there are virtually no exceptions to this open source rule.

At the same time, Ponemon’s study finds that, on average, just 30% of business applications used by U.S. firms are open source, a number that drops to 25% in Europe. On one hand, it’s impressive that commercial open source applications have made that much progress in the past decade. It’s also impressive why they’ve turned to open source:

  • %74 of U.S. IT professionals believe that commercial open source software offers better continuity and control; 
  • 66% of IT practitioners in the U.S. feel that commercial open source software means fewer bugs, and 63% believe it will boost quality compared to proprietary software; 
  • The ability to lower costs is no longer the main point of differentiation for open source software, according to IT professionals in the U.S. and EMEA; business continuity, control and quality rank above cost concerns, but all outperform proprietary software in the minds of IT professionals.

All of which is great, but none of this really means open source will dominate business applications any time soon. After all, 65% of those surveyed declared “ease of use” to be their primary consideration in choosing a messaging and collaboration solution (the focus of the survey).

Ease of use is not generally open source’s strength.

Making Software Easy

Instead, open source offers other benefits that trump ease of use. Aspects like flexibility, cost and control drive open-source adoption within enterprise infrastructure. As Gartner analyst Alexander Linden finds, despite the best efforts of proprietary analytics companies, “A lot of innovative data scientists really favor open source components (especially Python and R) in their advanced analytics stack.” 

But these are the über geeks. As I wrote last week, roughly 70% of enterprises still haven’t been able to take off their Big Data training wheels due to the complexity of the technology. For those willing and able to invest in hard-core data scientists with the appropriate technology chops, Big Data is becoming a source of significant competitive differentiation.

For everyone else, however, it’s a bridge too far.

But that’s for cutting-edge Big Data technology. There is a host of other open-source technologies that is broadly used because it’s higher performance, easy (enough) to use and often is cheaper. Things like Linux, Drupal, Nginx and other open-source technologies power millions of enterprises.

Most, however, are embraced and deployed by engineers, not business users.

This is how it has always been, and this is almost certainly how it always will be. Small wonder, then, that “open source companies” no longer tout open source on their websites, preferring to focus on the commercial value they provide on top of open source (polish, packaging, etc.). 

In sum, open source is huge in the enterprise, and counting adoption of open-source applications is a really, truly terrible way to measure that adoption.

Lead photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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