Case study: Open source sells bricks and mortar

Will large organisations with mission-critical environments embrace open source instead of commercial alternatives?

Realestate.com.au is a Web site with demanding traffic requirements, serving more than 60 million page views a month.

According to Berkeley Wilson, IT operations manager with realestate.com.au, the company is almost an open source-only show.

“From the OS to the language, our applications are built in open source,” he said.

The company currently uses FreeBSD, Apache, modperl, MySQL, Squid, Perl and gcc and has a production environment “extensively” based on open source software, he said.

Wilson said open source can actually offer a more advanced product. Two of the main requirements for realestate.com.au were reliability and security.

“All the open source projects utilised have equalled or bettered the competitive commercial offerings,” he said.

“Where open source was not selected, significant weakness is normally seen in maturity, features or reliability to the equivalent commercial software.

“The only commercial software we use are [those for] vertical markets where no open source software offering has reached a maturity or feature level to match.”

One such area is enterprise backup software where open source offerings are way behind, Wilson said.

Employing open source might make managers nervous, in that there’s no one “being paid to fix it”. But according to Wilson, this hasn’t been a problem. In fact, their support has sometimes been faster.

“The user support offered by open source software often gives us faster access to bug and security patches when required,” he said.

“Open source's excellent user support community network and access to source code is a goldmine to us when seeking knowledge or solutions.”

Although it’s easy for business managers to assume software created by enthusiasts would be somehow inferior to a product developed on a time line and a budget, there are hidden benefits, Wilson says.

“The many developers and users of these projects ensures extensive testing and exposure which adds to the projects feature set, security and reliability.”

What happens if your commercial software provider suddenly stops providing? This is a risk people can easily overlook when opting for a brand name software solution, according to Wilson.

“Commercial obsolescence is a risk often ignored. Many a successful software vendor has died a death through acquisition or changed business direction,” he said.

“Open source projects that have established a significant following have a very low risk of abandonment which provides comfort to the person building a business on software that needs to be around for years.”

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