Integrating Open Source Apps Into the Server Room

Much fuss has been made about open source software, particularly its influence on back-end server environments. At this point, no one will deny that open source software is becoming fairly pervasive.

Open source software is finding its way into server rooms of all types and sizes. For those that have yet to get their feet wet, we outline the basics and highlight the options.

As of March 2006, for example, the open source Apache Web server powered nearly 69 percent of all Internet Web servers, according to the oft-cited Netcraft Web Survey. In addition, shipments of Linux-powered servers grew 20.8 percent in 2005, according to IDC, and the market research firm predicts Linux will account for 29 percent of server shipments in 2008. In practice, Linux penetration is probably even higher, as many installations are do-it-yourself affairs without a commercial vendor attached.

Although analysts and other agenda-driven interests have published conflicting data about the costs of open source vs. commercial platforms, at a minimum open source provides options. And, considering its advancing uptake rate, at least some organizations are deciding that open source is the right option for them.

Understanding Open Source

One common misconception about open source software is that it is always free. Indeed, there is a large body of cost-free open source software, including the Apache Web server. But there is no prohibition on commercial businesses creating and selling open source software or, in many cases, modifying and selling existing open source software. Frequently, licensing terms for Free and open source software (FOSS) projects require vendors make modified versions freely available. In such cases, service and support for the "freely available" software is available for a fee.

So although open source software may often be free, lack of acquisition cost is only one attraction. Source code for open source software is available for examination and modification, thus lending open source to customization. Software bugs can be found and patched more quickly, by the client or the vendor. And security may be enhanced because lapses or back doors can be found and repaired by any party. Some people, however, would argue that open source security is compromised for the same reason — hackers can scan the code for weaknesses.

Making an Assessment

To best determine whether some or all of your server infrastructure is a good candidate for open source solutions, consider several criteria.

Who is your audience? Does your server infrastructure serve highly platform-dependent users? For example, a Microsoft Exchange server handling groupware messaging for a shop full of Microsoft Outlook clients is serving a highly specific audience. Unless your plans include migrating clients to open source messaging solutions, such as Gnome Evolution, the MS Exchange server probably makes the most sense in this scenario.

On the other hand, many "generic" network services, such as file serving, POP3 or IMAP4 e-mail, Web serving, DNS, CUPS-based printing, and even some databases can be served neutrally by open source packages. In a neutral network, client connections may come in from any platform with support for these protocols. POP and IMAP e-mail is supported by virtually every e-mail client available, so running an open source e-mail server does not preclude which clients it can serve.

A third consideration is cost control and cost shifting. Traditionally, commercial server solutions require ongoing licensing fees be paid for the right to use the software. These fees may include a certain level of support, which can often be upgraded with additional payment. This may also introduce the need for in-house expertise to maintain the server infrastructure, thus raising costs.

Open source server solutions can offer more financial options. With money invested in in-house expertise, outside support costs can be low to none. This same expertise can customize open source software to a degree that may be costly or unavailable with commercial server applications. Third-party vendors, like Novell and Red Hat, offer subscription-based open source solutions that function similarly to commercial offerings, involving ongoing costs with support and maintenance contracts. In this scenario, the costs may not differ all that much from those of commercial applications. Enterprises, however, may continue to benefit from other flexible aspects of open source software.

>> Options Abound

This article was originally published on Mar 16, 2006
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