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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing

What Business Doesn't Get About Open Source and IT

Americans seem to have this silly attitude that if you don't buy it, it must not be worth anything. The RIAA have managed to convince us that downloading any music is stealing. And Linux is still viewed with suspicion in the bastions of American corporate IT, in spite of the fact that companies such as Oracle have adopted the platform for all of their new software development activity.

In commenting on an IT survey regarding use of Linux in the commercial world, Mary E. Tyler stated the following in a recent article  on newsforge.com, an online Linux news source:

Linux may be free, but using Linux is not. Free licenses are a factor, but not the whole picture for these companies. Experienced, certified Linux professionals are in short supply and cost 20-30% more than Windows admins with comparable levels of experience. One company said, in the essay portion of the survey, "We use Windows 2000 servers for our data applications and Linux for our Internet gateway. It is solid, reliable -- 100% -- but it is so expensive to get help for."

Other factors she mentions that the survey highlights are the fact that companies like to have someone to sue if things don't go well, and that they like to have someone else to blame if something breaks.

The Commoditization of the U.S. Economy

I think she's missed one fact about the American corporate psyche these days. Everything must be commoditized. That way you can buy just as much as you think you need just when you think you need it. If you have been laid off from an IT job in the last couple of years, you realize that you were just such a commodity, and if you are lucky you may be working as a contractor providing that same commodity to whoever happens to be providing the contract at this time, but without that nasty (to the corporation) fixed expense of silly extras like a retirement fund or medical insurance. Or, you may be considering a move to Bangalore (and I don't mean that town in Maine).

In some ways, the belief that commoditization saves money is actually a myth. This University spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on site licensed commercial software which provides us more copies than we need, because if we bought individual copies of just what we needed, it would cost us millions of dollars. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on commercial software to run the business of the University, while some of the most sophisticated research on campus is accomplished using an operating system and software for which the licensed use is free. And, as shoppers at those super stores know, it's not less expensive to buy only what you need. It's much cheaper by the unit to buy a year's supply of toilet paper all at once.

Commoditization does avoid being locked into an ongoing expense, but there's a price to pay. This brings us back to the issue of those "experienced, certified Linux professionals." I've managed a number of projects that have developed strategic systems that run on Linux, but I've never hired a certified Linux professional. I'm not sure that such a person exists, but it will be just a matter of time before someone figures out that they can charge people money to provide just such a certification. There are plenty of Microsoft certified software "engineers" out there in the world, and if you see them they are now usually holding signs which say, "will point and click for food."

Rather than hiring certified Linux professionals, I had good success hiring intelligent, motivated people with good problem solving skills and the ability to acquire knowledge on their own. Some have been computer science majors, but others have been music majors. It may be easier to find these types hanging around a university, but they have to go somewhere when their degree is finished. With an investment in people, full time staff members, it has been possible to develop software using open source programming tools and operating systems or to implement systems using open source programs developed for a specific task.

This work requires a loyal work force, which in turn requires an organization to be loyal to their work force. This requires treating people like an important resource rather than an expendable commodity. It also requires the understanding and acceptance that if something goes wrong, there's no one else to blame or sue.

Open Source at UNT

A number of years ago, UNT ACS implemented a commercial product to provide a Web client interface for student E-mail. That software worked the way the company that sold it thought it should work, but we found it to be restrictive, unreliable, and not flexible enough for our needs. By implementing an open source alternative we were able to provide a much more stable and reliable platform for Web E-mail at the cost of one staff member's time and dedication.

Redhat recently announced cessation of free support for their popular Linux distribution. Rather than pay a fee for support, a number of projects have switched to the Debian  distribution. What do you do if Microsoft decides to stop supporting a version of Windows? You have no choice but to pay them again for a newer version. Open source software provides a flexibility not possible when using commercially licensed software.

This University has a number of successful and strategic systems that have either been developed using or are running on open source software. These include a student E-mail system which has scaled from 20,000 to 40,000 users without additional cost other than storage. It includes practically the entire University Web presence. It includes fundamental support systems for authentication and identification. Just imagine how productive U.S. corporations could be if they were willing to make such an investment in a loyal workforce.