The Case For Open Source

Adopting Open-Source Software, Especially an End-User-Facing Application Like an LMS, Needs to Be Undertaken With the Same Care as Any Other Large-Scale Software

Open-source software has been in the enterprise for years, starting at the deepest levels of IT and recently emerging into enduser applications. A 2008 Gartner survey of 275 organizations around the world indicated that 85 percent of respondents use open-source software in their enterprise and the remaining 15 percent is expected to do so within the next 12 months.

Adopting open-source software, especially an end-user-facing application like an Learning Management System(LMS), needs to be undertaken with the same care as any other large-scale software implementation project. But an open-source LMS can provide significant value to the enterprise while avoiding vendor lock-in and higher costs.

DRIVERS FOR ADOPTION

There are a number of drivers for the increased adoption of open-source software within the enterprise. According to a survey by North Bridge Venture Partners of opensource software vendors and adopters, the primary drivers are lower acquisition and maintenance costs. Other drivers include superior security, freedom from vendor lock-in, and better quality software.

Open-source LMSs can provide significantly lower acquisition and maintenance
costs. A recent study by the North Carolina Community College System found Moodle provided a 72 percent reduction in costs with no difference in functionality or enduser satisfaction. In the enterprise content management space, Alfresco has calculated its product provides an 89 percent lower TCO than the published lowest prices for a comparable closed-source solution.

Organizational benefits of open source go beyond simply lower costs. Opensource software’s security and reliability have been steadily improving. Coverity’s recent open-source report indicated a 16 percent reduction in security defect density in the largest open-source projects. The open-source cliché —“with enough eyes, all bugs are shallow”— seems to have some grounding in reality. Security flaws in open-source code can be found and fixed more quickly than in comparable
closed-source code because a larger number of developers are looking at the code and offering bug fixes.

Open source’s freedom from vendor lock-in may, in the long run, be the most important strategic consideration. Adopters of open-source software usually have multiple vendors supporting a core product, and they always have the option of supporting the product internally. Projects that have commercial partners, but are not commercial products themselves, provide adopters with the best of both worlds. Vendors must compete on service and price. As important, the data structures in an open-source project, and access to the core data storage, are available to the enterprise.Migrating between systems, bringing servers in house or moving between vendors are all easier with direct access to the underlying database.

MOVING UP THE STACK

Open-source software used to be in the realm of the geeks in the IT department. Linux based servers, open-source databases and middleware didn’t directly impact the endusers. The productivity applications they use  were usually the same closed-source offerings, just running on an open-source stack.

In the last five years, there has been a strong movement up the application stack, from backend to back office to end-user. Open-source vendors have emerged, offering end-user applications in learning management systems, office suites, customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning, enterprise content management and business intelligence. The largest growth has occurred in the business-intelligence, customer- relationship-management and learning-
management markets. For example, since its founding in 2004, Sugar CRM has grown to 4,000 customers with more than 500,000 users. In the same time period, Moodle has grown from roughly 1,000 sites to more than 39,000 sites and nearly 27 million users. Vendors offering open-source content management, business intelligence and office suites have seen similar growth patterns.

RELIABILITY AND QUALITY

Open-source software (OSS) may have a reputation for being less expensive and more flexible, but have OSS solutions met the stringent demands of enterprise executives? To find out, Forrester Consulting recently surveyed 132 senior business and IT executives from large companies using open-source software. The vast majority (92 percent) of respondents said opensource software met or exceeded their quality expectations while meeting or exceeding their expectations for lower costs.

ADOPTING OPEN-SOURCE SOLUTIONS

Adopting open-source solutions can be easier and less expensive than traditional closed-source solutions. The potential savings and increased flexibility have prompted three out of four executives in the Forrester survey to recommend evaluating open source before looking at commercial alternatives. Most organizations can easily adapt their software selection criteria by adding a check for viable open source at the beginning of the selection process.

The free nature of the software makes small pilots easier than purchasing licenses or engaging in an expensive evaluation process. An organization can trial a number of OSS solutions to ensure it will meet the needs of the organization and begin to create end-user buy-in.Organizations can further reduce the risk and expense of a trial by engaging with a vendor that offers hosted service.

After the pilot phase,most OSS vendors can then either enable transition to the enterprise data center, or grow the SaaS solution to meet increased requirements as the solution is adopted across the enterprise. When considering adoption of an opensource solution a vibrant online community of users and developers should be vetted, as well as the availability of vendor support.

VENDOR SUPPORT

Formany organizations, the key to a successful open-source project will be the availability of high-quality vendor support.Open-source LMS vendors offer a range of services, from simple shared Web hosting to full implementation support and content development.

Open-source vendors typically come in two flavors. The first is a commercial enterprise that sponsors the open-source development and is the primary provider of commercial services. These organizations usually offer a free version and a for-fee enterprise version. For example, Dokeos e-learning offers an open-source platform and the basic version can be downloaded for free. It has a Pro version
for a yearly fee,which offers a range of enterprise features and guaranteed uptime.

The second flavor of open-source vendor is usually a commercial partner of the project. The partner doesn’t control the project, but instead contributes resources to help sustain the project’s development.Vendors contribute code, documentation and cash to the project in exchange for the right to use official partnership trademarks and marketing support. There are typically multiple partners of a project, each offering a range of services. As an example, both Moodle and Sakai have partnership programs and multiple commercial vendors supporting the projects. The Moodle project has more than 50 commercial service providers around the world, and Sakai’s commercial partners include IBM and Oracle.

Services offered by open-source vendors can vary widely.Most offer technical support, ranging from24x7 on-call help desk to per incident support. Typically, front-line support will be backed by the developers working on the project who will train the support team and offer development support as an additional service. Many OSS vendors have begun to offer a hosted software as a service (SaaS) that can reduce IT overhead by sharing costs across multiple organizations. SaaS offerings can offer an enterprise an easy method for running pilot projects, outsourcing IT, and reducing costs and risks of implementation.

Additional services provided by OSS vendors can include customization, integration,
training and strategic consulting services. All are built on a commodity open-source platform, providing the vendor with lower costs that can be passed on to the end-user.

OPEN-SOURCE IN THE ENTERPRISE

Most IT organizations are using open-source software already, whether deep in the data center or providing functionality for the end-user. The learning management system market is no different. The growing ecosystem of open-source service providers will continue to offer value-added services to provide enterprises with the support and technical knowledge necessary to successfully implement open-source solutions throughout the software stack. Organizations evaluating learning management system options can consider open-source options (like Moodle) as mature, stable alternatives to closed-source solutions.

—Jason Cole, Ph.D. is the chief operating officer of Remote-Learner.net, a North American Moodle partner company.

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