Open Source: The Next Generation

La Quinta Inns, the national hotel chain, has just shifted its fast-growing online reservation system from BEA Systems Inc.'s WebLogic application server to a lesser-known open-source product called JBoss. The reasons for the switch from commercial software to an open-source...

March 30, 2004

9 Min Read
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La Quinta Inns, the national hotel chain, has just shifted its fast-growing online reservation system from BEA Systems Inc.'s WebLogic application server to a lesser-known open-source product called JBoss. The reasons for the switch from commercial software to an open-source alternative sound familiar: good performance, increased flexibility, and lower costs. They're the same benefits that have driven many companies to try the open-source operating system Linux and the Apache Web server in the past few years.

What's different this time are the names of the open-source products being deployed by La Quinta Corp. and a growing number of companies. In addition to JBoss, they include the Tomcat Java Servlet engine and MySQL, PostgreSQL, and Berkeley DB databases.

"It's pretty clear that the open-source projects are building out on top of existing infrastructure," writes Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux kernel, in an E-mail interview. "Right now, the databases are obviously starting to come of age, and much of the usage there builds on top of successes of open source in the kernel and Web space."

This second generation of open-source products is different in many ways from its predecessors--including lacking a rich uncle to help the products get ahead. They can't count on endorsements from influential technology companies such as IBM that helped propel Linux and Apache. That's because some of the newer open-source offerings threaten the market share of commercial products. JBoss performs functions similar to IBM's WebSphere, while MySQL, PostgreSQL, and Berkeley DB are relational databases of the same general type as IBM's DB2 and Oracle's flagship system.

Still, they're slowly winning converts. "If somebody asked me a year and a half ago if I would use an open-source database, I would have laughed," says Jamie Cash, director of technology architecture at the National Leisure Group Inc., a travel-packaging company with annual revenue of about $1 billion. Cash, an Oracle customer, isn't laughing now as he eyes MySQL for potential use at National Leisure. The company already runs JBoss in a system that pulls together information from airlines, hotels, car-rental agencies, and destination-activity vendors.Technology investors are taking notice, too. MySQL AB, which was organized from the beginning as both a community-software project and a technology company, last year attracted $19 million in venture-capital financing. It's up to 130 employees and growing. JBoss Inc., a 30-employee company, attracted $10 million in venture funding last month, which it plans to use to hire more developers and support specialists and to increase marketing, CEO Marc Fleury says.

Following in the footsteps of Linux and Apache, second-generation open-source products have momentum in their favor and aren't relegated to just backroom development projects. The Java-based JBoss application server handles 10,000 messages a day on La Quinta's Web site, where customer bookings increased 83% last year compared with 2002. "There's tremendous excitement and support for our online initiative," says Raven Zachary, director of Internet technologies.

In the middle of last year, La Quinta took the operation of its Web site back from an outside service and revamped it to better serve online travel shopping. The company was using JBoss for software development and some lesser Web-site applications and determined JBoss version 3, released in June, was ready for its workloads. JBoss also had been certified as Java 2 Enterprise Edition-compatible by Sun Microsystems, a high hurdle with thousands of tests. La Quinta wanted to cluster its reservation servers to allow failover, which would have meant buying four BEA licenses, compared with one for JBoss. "We had no problems with BEA's WebLogic," Zachary says. "This isn't about reliability."

At Sabre Holdings Corp., developer of the Sabre reservation system and the Travelocity Web site, the travel-shopping system is moving off fault-tolerant Compaq Himalaya servers onto a combination of Linux and the MySQL database running on clustered Intel servers. The main reason: Total cost of ownership will be at least 40% cheaper, with anticipated savings of "tens of millions of dollars," chief technology officer Craig Murphy says. But Sabre doesn't trust open source 100% yet--the shopping system's financial transactions will run on commercial software using Hewlett-Packard NonStop systems.

The vendors behind the new open-source products have figured out that service and support are what sells. MySQL is available free under a General Public License or as a commercially licensed system starting at $495 per server; companies buy commercial licenses so they aren't obligated to donate changes back to MySQL development, as required by the GPL. MySQL technical support ranges from $2,500 per year per server for E-mail help to $48,000 per year per server for full-blown, 24-hour emergency service. JBoss is free under what's known as the Lesser General Public License. That lets a company modify it without donating the changes back to the JBoss community. Technical support starts at $10,000 per application per year.Sabre Holdings called on MySQL AB in January when its 64-bit MySQL database ground to a halt. Sabre's IT staff sent a snapshot of the problematic code to MySQL late on a Thursday afternoon, and the problem was resolved by the end of Friday. "I can't tell you how encouraged I was by that quick resolution," Murphy says.

National Leisure's Cash encountered "an appropriate amount of skepticism and professional concern" about tying such a key system to the latest open-source phenomenon. So he talked to JBoss users, did extensive testing, then signed up for support from the company that employs the key developers behind the application server of the same name. "We've been able to have very high-level contact with JBoss developers on how to increase performance," Cash says.

JBoss and MySQL are alike in employing the core developers behind the open-source products that begot the companies. "We tightly control our code base, unlike Linux," says Fleury, who's both CEO of JBoss and lead developer of the JBoss project. "It's open-source code with accountability, almost like a commercial company."

That accountability has its upside. "We know we wrote it all," says Zach Urlocker, MySQL's VP of marketing. As a result, MySQL for a fee will indemnify its customers from any claims of intellectual-property infringement that might arise. It's a top-of-mind issue for business-technology managers contemplating open source in light of SCO Group's widening legal assault on Linux developers and users.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer contends that Microsoft offers better manageability and lower total costs, while standing behind its products better than a company that doesn't own the intellectual property. But he doesn't expect the challenge to go away. "These companies may all go away," he says. "Five years from now, it may not be JBoss and MySQL that we're talking about. It will be someone else. But Microsoft will still be competing effectively with them."This model--companies that spearhead open-source projects while simultaneously building profit-driven enterprises around the efforts--is unproven and certainly open to doubts. Independent open-source developers, for example, have less influence in projects managed by these companies, so there isn't the wide-open potential for innovation that Linux fans tout. At MySQL, "99% of the key contributors are on the payroll and have equity in the company," Urlocker says. Code contributors must sign over rights to MySQL AB.

"I have to admit that that is one particular set of problems I personally have always tried very hard to avoid," says Torvalds, who's working on the Linux kernel for the Open Source Development Lab, a nonprofit consortium of technology companies that includes Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Intel. "On the other hand, I also suspect that, especially in markets that are pretty focused on commercial needs anyway, and things like databases certainly would fit that, it may just be inevitable and possibly the best model to keep in touch with the needs of your customers."

Perhaps the biggest question for these second-generation companies will be the involvement of established technology companies. SAP last year turned over the source code for its SAP DB relational database to MySQL AB. The move came after SAP concluded, "We're not a database vendor," says Shai Agassi, an SAP executive board member. Yet SAP wanted to continue to support and develop the system, so about 80 developers at SAP continue to work on the software. They turn their work over to MySQL AB, which offers it as MAX DB for transactional and high-performance uses.

Finding a company to support the widening number of open-source pieces can be a challenge, says Burton Group analyst Gary Hein. Aztec Software Inc. and Gluecode Software are two companies looking for a niche providing service and support for software stacks that combine various open-source products.

James Chaney, senior project manager at Consolidated Communications Inc., purchased Gluecode's stack, guaranteed to work together, for $15,000, combined with a $15,000 proprietary business-process engine and portal server that works with it. Chaney can use the Gluecode package on an unlimited number of servers. He figures he would have spent $100,000 per CPU for the same functionality in commercial software. As a result, he's using Apache, Linux, MySQL, the PHP scripting language, and Tomcat, and expects to add JBoss later.Chaney says he would have run into more opposition if he hadn't been able to purchase Gluecode's technical support. He has had to tap that support. "I got the response I needed the same day," he says.

But do the new open-source companies have staying power? Critics point out that VA Linux, a former supplier of Linux hardware, became a much-reduced VA Software, providing collaborative development applications; Scriptics, a supplier of a commercial version of the Tcl scripting-language tools, and GreatBridge, a supplier of technical support for PostgreSQL, both went out of business.

What's more, open-source products aren't necessarily open for life. SourceForce, an open-source collaboration portal, went from being open-source code to a closed and proprietary product. "It's not easy to close an open-source project, but it's possible if the copyright holder chooses to do so," Hein warns. "Viability and stability risks cannot be ignored when considering open source."

As users have learned with Linux, and as Microsoft officials love to point out, open-source software isn't always free. The venture-capital investments make the second generation of open-source products look more like commercial software. It's the goal of JBoss and MySQL to create profitable companies, with consequent top- and bottom-line expectations.

"Open-source code is in flux," Sabre Holdings CTO Murphy says. "You can't tell exactly where you will end up." Still, he's forging ahead. Sabre Holdings purchased an enterprise license for MySQL and will likely add even more open source in the future. Says Murphy, "Things are working."0

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