Vendors continue to free up some proprietary wares

At the Open Source Business Conference held last week in San Francisco, some big-name commercial vendors continued the trend of contributing formerly closed code into the open source community.

BEA Systems announced that it's releasing its Java-based Kodo persistence engine to the open source community, and Sun released the specifications to its UltraSparc microprocessor under the GPL.

These are by no means isolated moves. Late last year Sun announced plans to release its entire Java-based middleware stack to the open source community, for example, and Qlusters extended its Qlusters Resource Management software for controlling Linux systems into the open source realm at the end of January.

At the same time, more vendors have jumped on the trend to offer versions of their proprietary products for free. Most recently, VMware released VMware Server, a free version of its server virtualization software. IBM unveiled a free version of its WebSphere application server in November, followed by a free version of its DB2 database in late January.

Making software products available for free is a good idea for the industry at large since it puts products in reach of a wider audience, observers say.

"We haven't used any of the 'free' versions of products from Oracle, IBM, VMware and Microsoft. I see this as a positive, however, because it does make their offerings accessible to as many people as possible," says Corey Ostman, director of new technology initiatives at PriceGrabber.com.

Bob Igou, a research director at Gartner, agrees. "One of things that open source does is put a market of software out there that has no barrier to entry or use," he says. This means a lot of organizations can have access to technology they never could have afforded before, he says.

However some vendors' open-source gestures are more tactical than benevolent, analysts say.

Richard Monson-Haefel, a senior analyst at Burton Group, says that with open source gaining a stronger foothold in corporate data centers, it's not surprising to see commercial vendors submitting their own code to community development. When open-source alternatives shrink demand for a commercial product, vendors have little choice but to either close down development, or generate some goodwill by contributing the product to open source, he says.

"If you've created a product and you've invested resources in it, and now there's an open source solution that's available and it's actually gaining more traction, it's really hard to justify doing commercial development on that product," Monson-Haefel says.

Contributing a product to open source community poses little risk to a vendor, he says. "If it ends up taking off, they become the stewards of this successful open source project, if it doesn't then it's the community's fault."

In some cases, the move to turn a proprietary product into an open source project stems from desperation, Monson-Haefel says. "It's a last ditch effort. It's part publicity stunt and part trying to salvage something from vested assets," he says.

Analysts caution users to devote proper due diligence before deploying a once-closed product. When commercial vendors turn proprietary code into free software, enterprise users must examine the product as they would any commercial offering, Gartner's Igou says.

"Take Solaris. Sun open sources it. Does it fall by the wayside? Do they continue to develop it and put important technologies into it? Is it well maintained?" he says. These are things users need to explore.

Burton Group's Monson-Haefel says users should be concerned if a product they're using is suddenly released to the open source community. "I would hold suspect any company that suddenly open sources their product and gives it away to community. I would hold suspect not only their motivations, but the future of that particular project," Monson-Haefel says.

Of course, there are exceptions. It's not always a bad omen -- IBM's open sourcing of the Eclipse development environment "was a fantastic and healthy move for entire community and for IBM," Monson-Haefel says.

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