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Research Note
18 January 2000
Debunking Open-Source Myths: Origins and Players
N. Drakos, M. Driver

While the hype that surrounds specific products like Linux soars, many other open-source efforts are shrouded in myth and mystery. We perform a reality check on the origins of, and the current players associated with, OSS.

Core Topic

Internet Integrative View and Summary ~ Electronic Workplace

Key Issue

What key trends will affect the role of the Internet over the next five years?

As a result of common misconceptions about the origins of, and the players associated with, OSS, many organizations are apprehensive about introducing or encouraging the use of OSS such as Linux, Apache or PERL (see Note 1) in IT environments.

Note 1

Open-Source Software: Definition

OSS in this context is software that meets the open-source definition as laid out by the Open Source Initiative (see The main conditions for qualification as OSS are that the product must be free to redistribute, source code must be available, and that modifications and derivative works must be allowed.

Myth 1: Open-source development is a new fad. Freely available and extendible software has existed for many years and in many forms. In particular, creating and sharing software was synonymous with the development of Unix. The decision by AT&T to commercialize Unix in 1984 prompted the first attempt to organize the concept of free software ("free" as in freedom, not free of charge) around a license and a development project (see Note 2). The Internet infrastructure itself is the result of open-source efforts, both in terms of the protocols and standards that emerged from IETF's "open house" processes and of the vital software servers for e-mail, Web-serving and name resolution.

Note 2

Free Software Foundation

The Free Software Foundation was set up in 1984 by Richard Stallman to promote free software. He was responsible for the GNU ("GNU's Not Unix") license and development project on which much of today's open-source products, including Linux, are based.

Myth 2: OSS products cost nothing. There are two separate cost issues. The first concern is acquisition costs. Although an OSS product is typically downloadable free of charge, it can also be sold and distributed for a charge. For example, with Red Hat, Linux can be downloaded free of charge, although Red Hat also sells it under various pricing schemes. What the user pays for in the latter case is not the right to use the software, but for accountability and support from the vendor. Another important but frequently overlooked issue with the cost of "free" software is that the price of acquisition is a fraction of the product's TCO. Deployment, training, support and decommissioning costs must be factored into any total cost formula (e.g., our NOS TCO model shows that software and hardware costs account for less than 20 percent of the total cost; see Research Note SPA-09-0438).

Myth 3: It is against human nature to work for nothing. OSS developers do not work for nothing; an OSS project is a training and proving ground exposing young developers to large-scale collaborative development. Another reward is the accumulation of kudos — this may be sought for its own sake or leveraged commercially, especially within organizations that follow an open-source business model (see Note 3).

Note 3

OSS and Commercial Support

The Apache and PERL projects are maintained in large part by full-time employees of O'Reilly and Associates. Red Hat (as a consequence of its Cygnus acquisition) is the primary maintainer of the GNU C/C++ compiler that is essential to most OSS projects. Finally, even established IT vendors such as IBM are active participants in the OSS community; IBM has ported Apache to the AS/400 platform.

Myth 4: It is against sound business practice to give things away. "Open-sourcing" a project can help developers do their jobs better. Many developers in IS or R&D departments expect that sharing a solution among peers who have similar problems will help them get a better solution in the long term (see Note 4). OSS development can also be a source of revenue from services, support or proprietary add-ons and extensions. New IT vendors that specialize in OSS products (e.g., Red Hat — with the newly acquired Cygnus Solutions — Linuxcare and Sendmail), as well as established vendors like IBM or Apple, actively develop OSS products as loss leaders for services, support and proprietary add-ons.

Note 4

OSS Community Methodology Examples

Apache, PERL and the PERL database drivers were all started by developers working within the IS or R&D departments of commercial organizations.

Myth 5: OSS is the domain of students and hackers. Although many of the early OSS projects have their roots in the academic world, the balance is shifting toward development that takes place commercially. As discussed in the previous section, active OSS development is becoming a legitimate job description for many employees, both in vendor as well as end-user organizations. However, one potential danger, especially for high-profile OSS projects, is that the commercial success of companies like Red Hat, VA Linux or Cobalt Networks will alienate some of the "grass roots" purists.

Myth 6: Open source is the same as Linux. From looking at trade press coverage, it would seem that open source and Linux are synonymous. However, a lesser-known fact about Linux itself is that in a typical Linux distribution of 500MB, only about 2 percent belongs to the Linux OS. The rest is what makes Linux useful and is made up of hundreds of OSS system utilities, tools and applications contributed by equally numerous development teams. These products are generally infrastructure and networking utilities, programming language environments, application development tools and end-user productivity applications. In fact, Linux owes its popularity to the availability of the OSS products that run on it.

Key Facts:

Acronym Key

IETF     Internet Engineering Task Force

NOS     Network OS

OS     Operating system

OSS     Open-source software

PERL     Practical Extraction Reporting Language

TCO     Total cost of ownership

Bottom Line: Contrary to common perceptions, open-source development is neither a recent phenomenon nor a transient one, and more significantly, it is one that will increasingly be associated with commercial vendors and end-user organizations. We recommend that IT organizations which currently exclude all OSS from their acquisition plans should re-examine this policy.

This document has been published by:
Service Date Document #
Internet Strategies 18 January 2000 TU-09-4036
Internet Operations Management 18 January 2000 TU-09-4036
PRISM for Electronic Workplace 18 January 2000 TU-09-4036
Managing Enterprise Applications 18 January 2000 TU-09-4036
PRISM for Networking 18 January 2000 TU-09-4036
Unix & Midrange Strategies 18 January 2000 TU-09-4036
PRISM for Distributed Computing 18 January 2000 TU-09-4036

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