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Open source SOA middleware growing in enterprise architecture amid hesitation

Rob Barry

Innovative companies increasingly turn to open source software—and they are turning to increasingly complex open source software types as they do. They also move from one open source implementation to another much as they would with commercial software. As an example take Digg.com, an Internet company with an application that aggregates news and information as posted and rated by millions of users.

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 We're contributors back to open source technology because we use so much.
John Quinn
VP of engineeringDigg.com
Built on mostly open source software and commodity hardware, Digg is currently dropping its open source MySQL database in favor of Cassandra, a non-relational, "NoSQL" database that was developed by Facebook and handed over to the Apache Software Foundation. John Quinn, Digg VP of engineering, said the company is moving to Cassandra with a service layer on top built mostly in Python. The company also uses PHP and RabbitMQ.

So how did open source technology mature enough to become the go-to backbone for Internet-scale companies? Quinn said it had a lot to do with the quality of committers in the open source community. And it has a lot to do with passion.

"At Digg, we're not just users of open source technology, but we're contributors back to open source technology, because we use so much," said Quinn.

Along with passion there is a feeling of stature and accomplishment that goes along with successful open source authoring. "If the audience for your code is the 20 or 30 programmers in your company, you have a different mindset than if you're writing code that is going to be seen by a much larger community."

Open source coders often feel a strong desire to push their own limits of quality, he continued, and can feel very gratified knowing that their work could influence tens of thousands of other coders.

Quinn said he has preferred open source to commercial systems at the companies he has worked for because of a combination of cost, control and avoidance of vendor lock-in. Most open source technology is cheaper to upgrade and less restricted in use than commercial software.

Red Monk analyst Stephen O'Grady said the most mature open source technologies for enterprise architectures right now are operating systems, databases and application servers. But he notes the trend for open source projects to target ever-higher levels of the enterprise software stacks.

"Further up the stack we look at things like rules engines and enterprise services buses—those are certainly very credible products technically," said O'Grady. "But do they have the same market maturity in terms of user adoption? No."

Naturally, when a company starts looking at niche-oriented open source technologies, things can get dicey. Documentation is often an open source pain point.

"The open source knowledge base can be quite fragmented at times," said Jeff Genender, author and open source consultant. "Projects typically are not documented very well and if you need support you might have to go out to IRC or a forum or blog."

This fragmentation has certainly been an enabling factor for the rise of the open source business model. Nowadays, it is often necessary to distinguish between open source products, and open source development projects, said Ricco Deutcher, Eclipse Foundation board member and CTO of the German open source SOA company, SOPERA.

The development projects do tend to be under-documented, he said, but a commercially-backed product must be documented well enough to please customers.

"Structurally the risks [with open source products] are not totally different than the risks of using commercial software," said Deutcher. "Some CIOs hesitate because it is new. But especially those under budget pressure take a risk and see the value."


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