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Open season

Linux on the server has long flown the flag for open source-derived applications in business. And it appears open software is finally hitting a range of bulls-eyes as a small but growing cohort of fans scope out open source applications for datacentre management. Monitoring and database solutions, portals and Web presence are just a few areas where open source is packing a bigger punch.

Although support traditionally isn't as thick on the ground for open source-derived product as for proprietary, closed solutions, that very fact represents an opportunity for the channel, which, by selling additional support software or services, can boost its own bottom line.

Cybersource CEO and long-time Linux supporter, Con Zymaris, said more open source and open source derived applications were moving into the datacentre. "But it's spotty," he said. "There's more to this story in 20-30 other countries. Australia is generally behind on uptake."

Zymaris estimated Australia is three or four years behind places such as the European Union in Linux adoption in the datacentre. That said, some big names have been running Linux at least at server level for a long time. Retail giant, Coles Myer, hosts hundreds of Linux servers in its datacentre, as does the National Australia Bank. The Queensland government, according to Zymaris, claims to have about one per cent Linux adoption in its datacentres, with broader industry adoption hovering around 17 or 18 per cent.

Zymaris said adoption was slow partly because organisations often didn't work out the TCO far enough ahead. Initially, Linux might not work out that much cheaper, but it could get cheaper every refresh as users skill up, he claimed, whereas Windows Vista or XP generally did not.

If an organisation calculated the TCO for two software refreshes or more ahead, the cost differential could become significant, Zymaris said.

The virtualisation boom - particularly around VMware - is a big driver for open source adoption. "The VSX server is partly built on Linux and on top of that you can put Windows, Linux, Windows over Linux, Linux over Windows - so that's really important," he said.

Many Web servers run Linux. And when Novell inked a joint deployment deal with Microsoft, mainly for datacentres, the atmosphere definitely improved, Zymaris said.

In the application stack, he said, Australian datacenters had a lot of open source, as well as open-source derived middleware such as JBoss. Sun's acquisition of open source database vendor, MySQL, also illustrated the rising importance of open software.

"MySQL can't be everything that Oracle can be, but it's like Holden versus an 84-tonne truck; not everyone needs an 84-tonne truck, but lots of people need the Holden," Zymaris said. "There are 5-10 million instances of MySQL around the world."

Seek and ye shall find

VMware channels director, David Blackman, said a lot of what VMware does is based on distros such as Linux and BSD. "We support over 60 versions of Linux on the OS, so we're very involved," he said.

The virtualisation vendor is growing a huge marketplace for virtual appliances that are mostly open source-derived. "Fundamentally, we're allowing ISVs to develop their applications based on open source operating systems, and put them into a virtual appliance. That makes it very easy for customers to deploy in their datacentres," Blackman said.

VMware's online virtual appliance marketplace lists about 600 virtual appliances, which customers can search through and download.

Popular applications at the time of writing included the Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon Desktop, with free VMware player.

It is a virtual Linux system with all applications usable out-of-the-box and advertised as suitable for test driving Ubuntu or as a secondary OS running within Windows.

Other virtual appliances available include the Damn Small Linux 3.4 Virtual Machine, a 50MB mini desktop oriented Linux distro. According to the developer, this modular app can boot from a business card CD as a live Linux distro, or from a USB fl ash drive or within a host OS such as Windows. It can power a 486DX with 16MB of RAM and transform into Debian using a traditional hard drive install.

There's also WARA - Web Archiving and Retrieval Appliance - and RestoreVM, an enterprise network backup and recovery solution for datacentres, targeting resellers. These interesting and low-cost applications will give a shot in the arm to open source in the datacentre and provide opportunities for canny solution providers and ISVs.

Management

Datacentre management software is one area where open source is coming into its own. Out-of-band management provider, Opengear, has been notching up a string of successes involving its open source derived datacentre management and monitoring applications.

Opengear managing director, Bob Waldie, and Asia-Pacific sales director, Leanne Ramsay, said the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has deployed Opengear console servers to manage its global network. The servers host remote monitoring, management and administration to all DFAT's posts, here and abroad. DFAT's global network spans 108 locations on five continents, and employs 3400 staff.

The Opengear CM4116 had the remote management features, affordability and reliability to attract DFAT. What's more, in a top-security environment such as an embassy or consulate, the equipment itself is sealed in a vault. Opengear product ran well in a sealed chamber with forced air but no air conditioning and manages gear from vendors including Juniper, Cisco and Nortel. "The CM4116 is based on a Linux kernel and we use it for all their communications. Its security is based on open source SSH, the securely encrypted architecting protocol," Waldie said.

He said Opengear had done its own open source Java applet in a Secure Desktop Tunnelling project, available on open source download centre, SourceForge.net. Open source is key to the whole architecture of Opengear's console server.

"We've taken it totally open source and what we do for customers like DFAT is give them the ability to customize the code that runs the box," Waldie said.

US-based technology provider, Raytheon, has also deployed Opengear console servers as part of its air traffic management system for civilian airport customers. The servers are used for remote administration in its development environments, jump-starting its lab servers, and providing centralised remote server access. Opengear hardware simplified Sun server management to improve its air traffic management domain automation.

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Utah State University also employs Opengear to manage its local and remote management of servers and disk arrays from Solaris, Linux and other vendors. The institution said it provided only what was needed - perhaps lowering the ticket price but also offering improved value to the customer.

According to Waldie, incorporating and supporting open source makes Opengear servers more cost-effective. "Open source has two major strengths particularly appropriate in management tools: flexibility and extensibility," he said.

Vendor lock-in

Another benefit of open source is users can avoid vendor lock-in, according to Waldie. They can also develop and extend the application to do even more. One of the most effective arguments against open source has been its insecurity compared to proprietary systems. Waldie claimed such security fears were out of date.

"That was a paranoia play that has reached end-of-life," he said. "Open source protocols are now proven to be more robust than having secrets hidden inside. Financial transaction [applications] make the algorithms public, so you end up with something that actually works and is not only secure because it is a secret." It seems government departments - a market which retains considerable channel appeal - may officially agree. According to the Australian Government guide to open source software in government agencies, open source software offers considerable flexibility in its support options by virtue of its development, release, distribution and licensing regime.

On the other hand, some government agencies question whether the software could be considered reliable, the guide said, and there had been few, if any, good studies assessing quality and reliability. But if users steer clear of new applications that hadn't been through the full feedback-based development model, open source software can prove useful.

Another thing to watch out for is the licences that apply to software - whether proprietary or open source. It's not just about licensing a copy per user, but can include what users actually do with the software - and the same is true of open source.

Governance and risk mitigation

HP is a big player when it comes to open source in the datacentre, with a focus on support for Debian distros on ProLiant and other HP servers. The company wasn't available for interview for this feature, but in January announced an open source governance initiative to help companies address legal, financial and security risks when adopting free and open source software (FOSS).

The vendor is researching how to manage open source effectively as part of an overall enterprise IT plan. "Traditional corporate policies for managing software assets are often inadequate to address the unique characteristics of free and open source software," the company said in a statement.

"For example, HP discovered three times as many FOSS licenses as one client originally thought. This left the customer with a choice: implement governance policies to allow the safe use of FOSS or replace the software at an estimated cost of $US80 million."

HP has introduced two open source initiatives, FOSSology and FOSSBazaar, dedicated to helping enterprise customers mitigate such risks and realise the full business benefits of open source software.

FOSSology helps users address FOSS acquisition, tracking and licensing, while FOSSBazaar is a collaboration between The Linux Foundation and vendors such as HP, Google, Novell and SourceForge to analyse FOSS business issues and promote governance practices. An HP Open Source Health Check service has also launched, but it's not known if this will be available to the channel.

Rittal IT business development manager, Mark Roberts, said Rittal's solutions were all Java-based. While not open source-derived as such, they were open standards-based and aimed to take advantage of the flexibility and cost-effectiveness open source could bring.

The environment is getting more heterogeneous - demanding more solutions that can cope with an array of varying platforms and that can manage everything from airflow to heating and anti-spam. Multi-platform solutions are becoming increasingly important as those who manage datacentres find their job description merging with those who manage facilities such as electricity and air-conditioning, Roberts said.

Rittal is seeking channel partners to on-sell some of its Java-based solutions.

"We're looking for partners that can provide the value in terms of configuration and also people that can provide the relevant backup for cooling and power," Roberts said.

Network security vendor, Webroot, is in the process of launching its own datacentre in April. "What we provide is software-as-a-service [SaaS], and certain elements of infrastructure based on open source products, such as Linux, are chosen for reliability, scalability and performance," managing director, Charles Heunemann, said.

Webroot uses "hardline" Linux as the OS, partly due to its interoperability. But Heunemann said he wouldn't want open source product for all operations. Certain elements of security were an example, and mail transfer agents (MTAs) were another, he said. Heunemann said Sendmail and Postfix users were limited by what the open source product would allow them to do.

Webroot instead built its own MTA from the ground up and put it on silicon, which it claims gives the service provider more flexibility.

Some open source setups can take 4-24 hours for a new configuration to 'take', and if that doesn't work it is 4-24 hours before a replacement can kick in. For a company that provides email services, that was way too long, Heunemann said.

But as the Australian government guide pointed out, appropriately designed open source solutions can be a better and faster alternative for some customers.

" [And] if properly designed and properly managed, open source applications can develop with remarkable speed. OSS projects that meet market demand tend to accrue additional developers, vendors and early-adopter technologists quite quickly," the guide said.