FRAMINGHAM (04/24/2000) - In December, Anthony O'Krongly was looking for a workflow application that fit his company's needs. Instead of buying a boxed application or hiring a traditional consultancy to build one, he went out on a limb: He posted a request for proposals on SourceXchange.com, a virtual meeting place where corporations can connect with the wild world of open-source programmers.
SourceXchange.com is run by San Francisco-based Collab.Net Inc., which was co-founded by open-source pioneer Brian Behlendorf, one of the creators of the Apache Web server. Collab.Net is one of a handful of emerging online marketplaces that connect information technology people looking for resources with open-source developers. Others include Cosource.com (acquired by Westboro, Massachusetts-based Applix Inc. in December) and Scotts Valley, California-based OpenAvenue Inc.
At marketing firm Galactic Marketing Inc. in Arlington, Texas, where O'Krongly is vice president of IT, the open-source approach to software development resulted in major savings. Hiring a firm to develop the workflow application would have cost $80,000 to $100,000, he says. Instead, he got the job done for $20,000 by developers he never even met. Five thousand dollars of that went to Collab.Net, which helped negotiate the deal and provided a reviewer to check code quality. The rest of the money went to a cadre of developers coordinated by Collab.Net.
The application, called WFTK, will start beta-testing next month and is expected to go into production in June. It will also be available for free from SourceXchange.com.
One of the reasons this type of development saves money, proponents say, is that the developers will build on existing open-source components rather than start from scratch or use commercial software.
"We know that developers in the open-source community are some of the most talented people out there," said Michael Wynholds, senior engineer at Sparks.com, a San Francisco-based online reseller of greeting cards. Via Collab.Net, the company got several proposals within weeks for building a new Web-server testing tool.
The work was handled by an open-source programming group at one-third of the price it would have cost to hire a consulting firm, said Wynholds. He said Sparks.com, which has been using the tool for a few weeks and is happy with it, sees the project as a test run and is considering using the same process for "serious business applications."
A few larger enterprises have dabbled in open source. Notable among them is San Jose-based Cisco Systems Inc., where chief print architect Damian Ivereigh created a piece of software that manages all print jobs for Cisco's worldwide operations. It was built out of pieces of open-source software such as Samba and Apache and is now available to everyone as Cisco Enterprise Printing System. A few companies are using it and have contributed minor fixes to the code, said Ivereigh.
Some analysts are skeptical about this model. "I don't think it's going to be a big trend," said David Folger, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Pleasanton, California. CIOs won't trust open-source developers to respect deadlines and deliver quality code, he said. As for handing the resulting applications back to open source, "I think people will want to keep their intellectual property rights for the bulk of their applications," he said.
But Tracy Corbo, an analyst at Framingham, Massachusetts-based Hurwitz Group Inc., said going the open-source route may make sense "when you need the work done but it's not the core of a business-critical system ... and you're resource-constrained."
"It really is a function of how core [the project] is to our core business," said O'Krongly, who acknowledged that he would be very hesitant to give away something that could give his company a competitive advantage.
"This [model] will have to prove itself," said Corbo. Companies like Collab.Net must be able to guarantee that open-source projects get delivered on time and meet specifications. "If they cannot do that, they won't succeed," Corbo added.