CIO — Until recently, Tom Jeffery didn’t give a damn about open-source software.
What concerned him was finding 10,000 new cash registers (essentially PCs with cash drawers) for 1,300 KB Toys stores and a new software system to run them because his old vendor was going to stop supporting the system he had.
But then a funny thing happened. "We sent out final [RFPs] to six vendors and narrowed it down to three," he recalls. "The only thing they had in common was they were all written in Java. And ran on Linux."
To Jeffery, vice president of IT for the Pittsfield, Mass.-based toy retailer, it didn’t matter what OS the new system used. What mattered was having a simple user interface, the ability to integrate with multiple systems inside KB Toys and the flexibility to modify the systems without relying on a vendor to do the job. The only registers that had all of that used GNU/Linux, the operating system built piecemeal over the Internet by a community of volunteer developers.
Jeffery was vaguely aware of the roots of this community, how it began in 1984 when a cantankerous software programmer named Richard Stallman wrote some brilliant software designed as an alternative to the Unix operating system. It was software that anyone could use and change and distribute?as long as he promised to share any changes he made with everyone else. In 1991, a Finnish college student named Linus Torvalds added a complex kernel to Stallman’s and others’ programs to instruct them to act as the unified operating system that most have come to associate with Torvalds’ pet name for the project, Linux.
Jeffery didn’t start caring about any of this until 2001, when he was forced to.
He didn’t care because for years open source has been dismissed as pie-in-the-sky, a toy for geeks. But today open source is undergoing a business revolution.
In a November 2002 CIO survey of 375 information executives, 54 percent said that within five years open source would be their dominant server platform. Today, major enterprises are running mission-critical functions on open source, big vendors have lined up to support it, and reliable applications have emerged.
And CIOs who have implemented it report huge total-cost-of-ownership (TCO) reductions.
It’s now clear that within five years, open source will transform how software is developed, sold and supported.
When CIOs need help with their systems and software, they don’t have to depend on vendors with their own agendas because when an open-source app doesn’t work, administrators can look at the source code, figure out why and write a fix themselves. If they’re having trouble, help is just a newsgroup away.