Assessing Open Source Solutions For Deployment

BY Mukul Yudhveer singh

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Open source is mainstream now. It has proved its mettle as more and more organisations are adopting OSS. But how can you assess and analyse whether the solution you are interested in is the right fit for your organisation?

“Open source is no longer a matter of concern regarding its duration as lot of organisations have already started using it, and (some) are now busy evaluating how soon they can start their journey with it,” says Mukul Mahajan, Tetra.

Rightly so, a recent report by Gartner pointed out that by 2025 more than 70% of enterprises would increase their IT spending in open source software (OSS) as compared to what is being spent on it as of now. This shows the increase in the number of organisations that have started to weigh the possibility of using open source solutions. However, it is still a long way to go for the open source solutions.

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“The organisations are still not clear about the sustainability of open source solutions. For corporations who adopt open source solutions, despite the solution being free, they always look at the long-term sustainability. So, unless they are sure about it, they are very hesitant to adopt it. Moreover, there is no strategy for one solution that fits all approaches. There are multiple strategies, and each strategy has its own advantages and disadvantages,” explains Mahajan.

A recent report published by Red Hat notes that 90% of IT leaders surveyed are using enterprise open source today, and they are using it for IT infrastructure modernisation (64%), application development (54%), and digital transformation (53%). The move to remote working, as per the report, forced many organisations to accelerate their digital transformation efforts to maintain innovation and continue to meet customer demands. So it makes sense that it moved up this year to the top three.

Paul Cormier, President and CEO, Red Hat, in the report says, “Open source has solidified itself as an innovation engine for the software industry. The technology trends that you see changing how we work and do business were born in open source—enterprise Linux, cloud computing, edge and the Internet of Things (IoT), containers, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and DevOps. These are the same principles that apply to how you’ve seen the world come together and make rapid advancements, like the Covid vaccine, in a shorter time frame than ever before. In both cases, enterprise technology and the challenges of a Covid world, the problems are too big for one person, one company, or one organisation to solve.”

He adds, “But it’s in moments like this where open source truly shows its power. Collaboration, transparency, and the idea that the best idea can come from anywhere are the principles that help organisations not just meet challenges but reach new heights.”

Assessing open-source adoption

Assessing the adoption rate of open source is not an easy task to accomplish as different industries use open source solutions for different reasons. For instance, a manufacturer might be using open source software for collecting data generated by machines to accomplish better turnover whereas an e-commerce player might be using open source software to enable search on his platform, so on and so forth. The cost of ownership and the risks associated also vary from case to case.

“Open source solutions and their sustainability need to be adopted on case to case basis, keeping unbiased risk assessment in focus,” says Mahajan.

The industries and verticals where the open source solutions are being adopted today include infrastructure software, application development, DevOps, databases, analytics, and cloud based operations. There are a lot of open source stacks available for all these verticals. Most of the new databases, as a matter of fact, are open source. There is no vertical left in cloud based solutions where open source cannot play a major role. But the question for organisations looking to deploy open source solutions remains the same. Why should they do so?

The beginning to the answer of this questions lies within the organisations themselves. What are the parameters they have kept in focus while assessing if they should go for open source solutions or not? The parameters that should generally be kept in focus while looking towards open source solutions include, but are not limited to, cost, freedom and flexibility, maturity, and talent retention.

“All these criteria might not be relevant to all the organisations. For some, all of these might be relevant, for others, only a few of these might be relevant,” says Mahajan.

cost factorCost as a criteria

Whether an individual or an organisation is investing in a new building, or a new software, the cost involved plays a critical role. The importance of the cost factor, while deploying an open source solution, increases by leaps and bounds. Cost of an open source solution is not limited to the cost incurred in downloading and installing a solution but also the cost the company will pay for the support services required for that solution.

“Any organisation looking for open source adoption should look at the long term cost of the open source solution. You will need support for the solution down the road. If you do not opt for that support, the only choice you may end up with is to stop using that solution and throwing it away,” explains Mahajan.

This could be a point where the senior management could raise questions and ask why this was not given a thought while choosing the solution. The key towards assessing and choosing an open source solution lies in calculating costs for at least five years down the road. The aspects to keep in mind include costs required for installing and maintaining the solution, the costs saved using the solution, and the cost of manpower required for the solution.

One should also keep in mind where further development of the solution will take place in-house, or will the organisation hire a third-party to do so. Further, deploying an open source solution mostly requires paying a support cost to a third party that can support the solution in the long run.

“If the development is being done internally, the organisation will need to make sure that the manpower can be sustained. Then comes in the customisation costs. Many will want to customise the solution as per their needs, and that might cost extra in form of development cost,” shares Mahajan.

He adds, “Open source solution providers, such as Zimbra and Red Hat, usually offer open source solutions in subscription models. Red Hat charges 100% as a subscription cost. Keeping that in mind and calculating how much you will be paying in five years as subscription costs can also help organisations in assessing and choosing the right open source solution.

Deploying a new solution always requires the existing manpower to be trained on the same. This training not only costs money but also requires dedicating hours, and sometimes days or weeks, towards training and practicing. Additionally, both the internal and the external teams need to be trained in such a way that they are in sync with each other all the time.

“If you want to deploy Libreoffice instead of MS Office, you will encounter some features that are not usable. You will need to train the users on Libreoffice. It is not essential that open source adoption will lead to lowered costs, or open source cannot be deployed if the costs are higher.”

Freedom and flexibility

Freedom and flexibility are among the top reasons that have made open source what it is today. The freedom to choose solutions with the flexibility of customising existing solutions have not only empowered the community developing open source solutions but have also empowered the end users to choose and deploy.

Freedom and flexibility, in the simplest of terms, stands for access to the source code. This access becomes essential for organisations such as the e-commerce portals coming up today because of the changes they are introducing on daily basis. However, this criterion does not hold the same value for all the organisations looking to deploy open source solutions.

“The freedom and flexibility assessment criteria is case-to-case. For instance, the way e-commerce portals are evolving on a day-to-day basis, they cannot work with solutions that are closed source. Such organisations are accessing open source solutions despite the higher costs,” explains Mahajan.

The second factor, flexibility, revolves around whether your internal team is flexible and capable enough to support these solutions, or will you be requiring external support (commercial) for the required support. Of course, the internal team, if there, will be required to upskill over time, and the management might also need to make extra efforts to sustain the team.

“You will have to decide whether you want self-support, or you will be needing commercial support. Either you should have the capability to support the solution internally, or you will have to reach out to the vendor, or any other third party for the same,” shares Mahajan.

He adds, “Adopting open source solutions requires being able to get suppliers in the long run. This matters a lot when we talk about mature projects. If you are adopting any new solution and there are only a couple of suppliers supporting it, you might find it difficult to find suppliers, if the solution does not grow.”

Organisations which have dynamic requirements should carefully assess the freedom and flexibility factor. This is because they might require a lot of customisations, which in turn will require them to work with multiple suppliers at the same time. The frequent changes they need will always need the source code to be present at hand.

Matured solutions only

There are millions of open source solutions available in the market today. A lot of these also make repositories like GitHub on an everyday basis. However, it is not common for all of them to sustain themselves in the long term, in some cases even for short-term. Mahajan is of view that only about 5 to 10% of such solutions reach the mature stage.

What happens if you adopt a solution, and it is not able to mature with time? Choosing solutions that are mature over solutions that have just entered the market can make a big difference in the long-run as support will always be available for the former ones.

“If you are adopting any open source solution, you should always look at the maturity of the solution. Hence the project that you are deploying should be in the mature stage and should also be supported by a good number of developers, as well as some key organisations,” explains Mahajan.

He adds, “Then comes restrictions of licensing. If the solutions you are deploying are largely restricted by licensing, you might find yourself hanging by a thread. Licensing assessment should be checked in all the cases as organisations will depend a lot on the solution, and this dependency might increase as the time passes. The licensing should not be too restrictive.”

Availability of commercial third party support options is something that organisations looking to deploy open source solutions should always assess. There should be more than a handful of vendors who can support the solution that an organisation is deploying. This will not only help in cost negotiations but also in choosing the best support possible.

“Open source also has dual licensing models available where there is vendor lock-in. Organisations must look at what are the things where vendor lock-in is applicable. For example, if an organisation does not take subscription from the vendor, can it still use the solution?” explains Mahajan.

The open source solution that an organisation adopts should have transparency. There have been instances where vendors have used open source just as a base combined with their own codes. Such vendors do not generally allow the organisations to use these codes. The ability to integrate such solutions with other solutions also matters a lot as desired results usually warrant the use of multiple solutions at the same time. It is critical for these solutions to work in harmony with each other.

“If you are deploying ERP, you will have to integrate with CRM, with web, with social media and more. We live in a world of integration, and if the solution you are deploying does not have the capability of getting integrated with other solutions, do not choose it,” says Mahajan.

cloud keyMore on the menu

Apart from the check points mentioned above, there is still more that organisations can do to assess risks attached with adopting the open source solution they are interested in. For instance, while a check on the quality of services provided with the solutions is something no organisation will miss, there is a possibility of missing out checking the governance model of the provider creating and enabling that solution. What if there are only three to five people managing the entire governance model, and one fine day they decide to change the model?

“Though the features of such solutions might be good, but lack of a governance model will mean that there is a lack of support. It also means that the solution might not be sustainable in the long term,” explains Mahajam.

The attributes of a sustainable open source solution include availability of community support, good documentation around the project, a thriving ecosystem of developers and contributors, transparent licensing model, and an up-to-date security reporting model. What kind of organisations are supporting the solution matters a lot. For instance, solutions being supported by the likes of Facebook will always have high credibility over others.

“Based on the above, open source policy documents should always be made for the organisations. These documents should clearly mention the advantages, the risks, licensing policies, and the total cost of ownership involved. The policy document should also explain the alignment of the solution with business and IT. If it is not aligned with businesspeople, organisations will not adopt it,” says Mahajan.


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