Using Open-Source Innovation Networks to Drive Collaborative Software Development

Collaboration on software development is essential, but how do you include your partners, customers and even competitors as part of an extended team? Read on for tips on using open source software to establish an innovative network for IT.

By Ian Skerrett
Fri, May 23, 2008

CIO — Following the open source model for collaborative software development can cut costs while providing a basis to create other innovative networks to develop technology specific to your company. While few have tried to develop industry-specific or vertically oriented open-source solutions up to now, it could become the future of software development.

Open-source software (OSS) is a development process that requires collaboration between individuals and organizations that isn't necessarily driven by a traditional hierarchy of command and control. Simultaneously, IT departments are driven to be more efficient while creating innovative new solutions to meet their business needs. More and more companies are turning to external sources for ideas that drive innovation. A series of books by Henry Chesbrough has coined the term innovation networks to discuss R&D departments that treat their systems as open—meaning, how do you include your partners, customers and even competitors as part of an extended R&D team?

For Open Source Advice from the Experts
Are your users clamoring to use open source but you're unsure about implementing it at the enterprise level? For the week of June 2, has invited a dozen renowned open-source experts to examine its risks and benefits. It'll cover the virtues of contribution, finding providers safe for enterprise adoption, choosing licensing models, and discovering what market consolidation and fragmentation could mean for you. Join the interactive blog-based discussion June 2 through June 6, 2008.

The question is, can OSS be used to establish innovation networks for IT departments? What steps are required to establish a successful software innovation network, and what are the resulting benefits for organizations?

The Drive for Collaboration

Determining the scope of collaboration is often the most challenging aspect of starting an open-source project. The key challenge is to understand the areas of technology that are a core business value of the organization. Based on previous experiences in the software industry, OSS tends to lead to two logical strategies for collaboration:

  1. Collaborating on the implementation of industry standards or protocols, and
  2. Establishing an industry platform to grow a market.

Collaborating on Open Standards

Globalization and government regulation have increased the importance of industry standards and protocols. There are many examples of consortiums that define standards and protocols for specific technologies or specific industries. However, the implementation of these standards is often left to ISVs or individual IT organizations.

Software vendors were expected to implement technology standards such as HTTP, XML, Java, etc., in their products, but the implementations provided very little differentiating features and customer value add. Open-source software provides an effective mechanism for creating a common implementation that drives the adoption of these standards; the Apache HTTP Web server is a great example of driving the httpd standard.

For more on collaborative software development, see Grady Booch's 10 Tips to Help Employees Collaborate.

A similar case can be made for IT organizations that need to implement specific industry standards and protocols. The actual implementation of these standards provides very little benefit to the core business of an organization. Today, IT organizations typically rely on ISVs or internal development groups to implement these standards and thus incur the costs of sourcing the implementation.

The drive for collaboration is propelled by the need for IT organizations to quickly and efficiently implement new regulations or standards for their business. Organizations within the same industry can join together as a software-innovation network to create a shared implementation of a standard. A common implementation would mean that the cost is shared and the common deployments would result in greater interoperability.

For more on corporate involvement in open-source applications, see The Enterprise Committer: When Your Employee Develops Open-Source Code on the Company Payroll.

Collaborating on a Common Platform

Creating a common industry platform can address the IT challenge of integrating solutions from different vendors and help accelerate the growth of a fragmented market.

A consistent requirement of IT organizations is the need to integrate solutions from different vendors. For instance, CRM systems often need to be integrated with e-mail systems; financial institutions need to integrate data feeds from many providers; and large-scale manufacturers, such as automotive or aerospace OEMs, have extensive supply chains that need to integrate across the product lifecycle. Typically, the integration is a cost of doing business, not a core value, so creating a common platform that is adopted by a number of industry players effectively streamlines the integration requirements.

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