IAG dives into open source, gives code back

Without a formal policy governing free software use, one of Australia's largest general insurers has developed an application using free software and in the process has given code fixes back to the community.

When one of Insurance Australia Group's (IAG) motor vehicle subsidiaries, Swann Insurance, wanted dealers to process insurance requests during a sale, the decision was made to develop a Java-based Web application in-house for an exact fit.

IAG's technology services manager for distribution systems Stuart Begg, said the Swann Activ8 project represented the first time open source, along with agile development, had been used in such a significant way at IAG.

"We look at closed source applications but open source software is easier to evaluate," Begg said. "People in the community talk openly about open source so you get a good idea of how it performs [and] it was easy to get open source equivalents to everything we needed."

Speaking at an enterprise Java conference in Sydney, Begg said to develop Activ8, IAG used a plethora of open source tools in the Apache Java space, including Apache Ant, CruiseControl, Checkstyle, Jakarta, Junit, Xerces, Velocity, Perl, and Tomcat.

"If you're not using Apache Ant, just what type of code are you producing?" Begg said.

On the client side, the open source Firefox Web browser was used for compatibility testing because Begg "can't stand Web applications built for only one browser."

IAG also used the open source JSPWiki to capture and share information about the development process.

"Our process was completely open and anyone in the organization could see it," Begg said, adding that this practice was also new to IAG.

The production environment, however, is proprietary with an IBM pSeries machine running AIX used for the platform, DB2 for the database, and WebSphere for the application server.

"We were always going to deliver on WebSphere," Begg said, adding that using an open source platform is quite possible. "The application would be simple to run on another platform. It's very flexible in that sense."

Activ8 consists of 220,000 lines of code and 520 business rules, and, according to Begg, has only had four defects so far and it "hasn't failed once in production."

Begg said enterprises can learn from the open source community which practices "ego-less" development, and recommends being selective of "what you pick and spend time on" because keeping up to date with "what's out there" can be an issue.

"Be careful forking code," he said. "If you do change the code it can be difficult to integrate. Make sure you will benefit in the long run."

Red Hat Asia Pacific senior executive Robin Johnson said open source is moving more towards mainstream computing, but many factors need to be considered for migration projects.

"Organizations need to define the impact, quality, and flexibility for an open source migration," Johnson said. "And, critically, what is the return?"

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