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TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

Evaluating Open Source: Green Flags to Look For

Why are open source technologies still so popular? What questions should you ask when evaluating an open source solution, and where is open source headed? Jozef de Vries, chief product engineering officer at EDB, shares his perspective.

Upside: Why are companies implementing open source technologies in their tech stacks?

Jozef de Vries: I’d say over the past few years, we are seeing the convergence of maturing open source software and peak frustration with the traditional incumbents. Arguably open source as we know it today took hold in the late 90s and early 2000s with the founding of the OSI, the Apache Foundation, the Linux Foundation, and the PostgreSQL Global Development Group, to name the more prominent. As with most new technology, there was considerable skepticism about its readiness for enterprise production workloads -- or fear (see the “Halloween documents”) -- so open source technology was often relegated to something developers were allowed to “play around with” but could never use for mission-critical workloads.

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At the same time, we saw the mainstreaming of the internet, the advent of the cloud, and the general stagnation of legacy tech vendors. This created room for a new model of technical innovation -- one born in the developer community, open to the developer community, and built by and for the developer community (which also happens to consist of the developers responsible for bringing their employers into this new technological ecosystem).

Executives were looking for ways to modernize their businesses to address a new market. They were reevaluating how they were investing their IT budgets after years (if not decades) of spending millions upon millions of dollars on legacy vendors who were not keeping up with the market trends. Coupled with the constant and ever-growing case that open source is better, getting better, can move faster, and is cheaper than commercial solutions, those same employees are bringing their companies into this new digitized world.

We are seeing real traction now; major corporations are enjoying success with their digital journeys rooted in open source, reducing IT spending, and growing their business in the process. The momentum will only continue. We are even seeing those same legacy vendors pivot and not just embrace but also invest in open source themselves.

When you’re evaluating these solutions, what are some green flags data teams should look out for? How should they go about evaluating them?

Although open source has numerous advantages, your company is still betting its IT strategy on the altruism of a group of random people who find time to build the software you want to count on. This is great from an innovation point of view; you seemingly have an endless pool of brilliant minds at your disposal. However, you run the risk that the community could dissolve. Given such a trade-off, what should your enterprise look for when determining the viability of an open source community? I believe there are three things to look for.

First and foremost, is the open-source community for the solution vibrant; is it widely adopted and does the community regularly contribute updates? A healthily engaged community is a sign that the technology has legs and that companies are successful with it; it often indicates the extent to which companies are employing staff to contribute to the community.

Closely related to this point, does the open source technology actually solve the problems you need solved? With the enormous popularity of open source comes the enormous hype around novel technologies, but are those technologies actually something that help solve your business problems in a sustainable way such that you can be confident that your investments may carry you several years? You should evaluate the suitability of open source technology in the same way you evaluate proprietary technology and not let the free or low-cost factors lead to hasty decisions.

Finally, are vendors providing software, services, and support for the open source technology? It’s comforting to believe that because it’s open source, you can always file a bug report to the community and it will get fixed, or that you can hire a few community hackers and get all the features and fixes you ever wanted, but do you really want to bet your business on that model? Contracting a vendor that specializes in the tech ensures you have a resource whose sole business purpose is to make sure your company is successful with the open source technology.

How do you see the open source landscape evolving over the next several years?

By and large, we are headed to a near-term future where the quality of open source technology is indistinguishable from closed source, and so is its production worthiness. We will also continue to see the major legacy vendors make more investments in open source technology as part of their core portfolio strategy, further accelerating those blurred lines between the qualitative assumptions of open versus closed source software (if those aren’t already largely indistinguishable).

[Editor’s note: Jozef de Vries leads product development for EDB across the on-premises and cloud portfolios. Prior to joining EDB, he spent nearly 15 years at IBM across a number of roles. Most recently he built out and led the IBM Cloud Database development organization via organic growth, mergers, and acquisitions.]

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