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Sizing up open source: Not so simple

Stacy Collett | May 7, 2013
Choosing open-source software is more complicated than picking traditional software. Is your IT department prepared to contribute code fixes to the community?

WibiData initially developed its entire software stack alone, but in September 2012 it decided to make part of that stack available as open source and released the Kiji project in November.

Offering some tools as open source benefits WibiData in several ways, most notably by broadening the company's user base, says Kimball. Fundamental layers of the stack have a low value, and users won't pay for tools that aren't unique to their business, especially if similar tools are available. Open-sourcing those layers introduces new users to other WibiData offerings. "There are plenty of people who can make use of these components who [weren't] customers or potential customers, but now they're using and testing the same software that our paying customers use," Kimball says. "So everybody enjoys increased reliability of the overall system by virtue of it being more widely adopted."

Moreover, open source provides a foot in the door to companies that might not be ready for a big-data tool yet. "If common-based layers of our overall system are widely available through open source, [developers] might just start using it. And later on, when their organization needs to get serious about using an open-source application, it's much easier for us to go in and sell to those business users because our software already runs on parts of their stack. Interoperating with it and getting it to work with the rest of our systems is much easier rather than if they had built this same system in a completely bespoke fashion."

Kiji has received only a few contributions from its developer community so far, but Kimball believes that will change. "For every 15 people who use it, one might file a bug report -- without providing a fix. But it's very early days," he says. "Where this goes is an open question."

The future of open source in general looks bright. Broader adoption will create larger communities for testing and feedback, which in turn will drive innovation in areas such as cloud computing, mobile and big data, according open-source vendors.

The innovation cycle is also creating new business models. "Open source is key to a company's ability to innovate and sustain innovation with financial benefits, interoperability and a supportive community," Webb says. "Those are the things that are going to keep it going."


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