Are We Headed to an Open Source Enterprise?

Enterprises face a number of challenges in moving toward more agile infrastructure and value-creating apps: cost, disruption, control and the security risks associated with large-scale system changes. Together, these factors make large-scale open source adoption both a valid option and a difficult choice for enterprises. On one hand, the technology is cost-effective, inherently agile and reliable. On the other, it’s innovative, disruptive and therefore risky to business owners. So where is the enterprise headed?

Questions around these issues were central to the discussion at today’s GigaOM Bunker Series Event (subscription req’d) entitled The Completely Open Source Enterprise. Is there still an appetite to drive innovation in infrastructure through open source? Will the developer community generate significant open-source enterprise applications? Will SaaS — or some other technology — become the innovation driver?

Open source permeates many infrastructure offerings, and is built into many SaaS platforms. It’s also embedded in the infrastructure of next-generation web platforms like Facebook. And many of the largest commercial players — like Apple (s AAPL) and Google (s GOOG) — don’t just use open source, but also contribute code back to the community.

But enterprises are finding new ways to create business applications where open source isn’t necessarily the innovation driver. Open Health Tools (OHT), for example, is a consortium of companies and health providers developing new tools for patient records. Open source is part of that, but the service delivery end of the stack is its most important and driving element.

The above example indicates that we aren’t headed to a fully open-source enterprise, but, rather, to a number of different scenarios where new partnerships like the OHT or SaaS become significant drivers of innovation alongside open source. John Robb of Zimbra, for example, pointed out at the event that when developers care enough to address critical app problems, they’re developing it as a SaaS offering. That commitment to solving a core innovation problem might make use of open source, but the real commitment is to SaaS, the hot market right now.

An Accenture survey showed low cost of ownership is the least important priority for CIOs. Meanwhile, the economic circumstances of the day allied to the conservative nature of decision-making in operationally focused organizations work against wider adoption of open source, even though the benefits are clear. Joe Topolski of Accenture’s Research Labs pointed to the high level of focus CIOs have on operations. That disposes them against change other than at the margin. “It comes down to risk mitigation. If the apps are running and you’re not getting calls from the business manager saying why won’t this work….” So why risk innovation?

There’s also a question mark over whether IT departments truly understand APIs well enough to go beyond their operational role. James Turnbull of Puppet Labs pitched in with his experience of banks: “Indemnification is a very big issue. Open source fell away because no one can recover the risk.”

Some of the old arguments against open source won’t go away. But the discovery of the day is that the innovation framework is broadening. Open source is still close to its heart, but innovators are also embracing new ways to get things done.

Image Source: Flickr user stuckincustoms