Merging Open Source and Proprietary Systems Management Solutions

Open Source vs. Proprietary

A recent study conducted by Research 2.0 Senior Analyst and ebizQ contributor Dennis Byron states that the rivalry between closed and open source software doesn’t exist because big software companies began investing in open source years ago.  Byron argues that, in effect, enterprise open source is being co-opted by large enterprise software entities—or vice versa—and that the differences between open and closed source are becoming negligible from a market research perspective.



Byron is correct. Many open source endeavors (i.e. GroundWork Open Source, MuleSource, Zimbra to name a few) have matured to the point where there is no longer an open source vs. proprietary debate centered on ideology or software quality. However, a debate definitely still remains – but now it's a debate about value and comparative advantage.

[To give proper credit where it’s due, the theory of comparative advantage was first made famous by English economist David Ricardo in 1817. For more detail, visit Wikipedia.]

The questions of value and comparative advantage at the center of this debate can be applied generally to any sufficiently mature open source market. This article will focus specifically on the enterprise IT management and monitoring space, but the principles can be broadly applied.  Namely, in this example:

  • Where do open source solutions offer a comparative advantage?
  • Where do closed source, Big 4 (HP, IBM, BMC, CA) systems management solutions offer a comparative advantage?
  • How can I best leverage the strengths of each and have them play nicely with each other?

Where do open source solutions offer a comparative advantage?

For example, in the core areas of system monitoring, network monitoring, event management, notification and dashboards, the Big 4 have already lost or are rapidly losing their comparative advantage relative to open source solutions, especially against those open source solutions that use a best-of-breed development strategy, don’t use per-node based pricing, and can provide comparable scalability and distributed deployment options.

[One can surmise, although they would surely be loathe to admit it, that the Big 4 know they’re losing advantage here – witness the recent BTO and data center automation acquisitions by HP, designed to push the OpenView technology portfolio up the value chain.]

Where do closed source, Big 4 solutions offer a comparative advantage?

The Big 4, for the time being, probably retain a comparative advantage in areas such as multi-OS software deployment systems, asset tracking, demand management, etc., relative to any single open source alternative.

How can I best leverage the strengths of each and have them play nicely with each other?

Because most IT environments within large organizations run a mix of open source and closed source on a number of platforms (Windows, Linux, Unix, shrink wrap apps, in-house apps, etc.), credible open source management solutions that work well in such environments must also be able to integrate and co-exist with proprietary systems. IT administrators and architects can configure environments so each type of software (open or closed) is able to operate in its area of comparative advantage while exchanging information with others, maximizing the ROI of the entire enterprise.

For example, GroundWork is able to integrate very well into existing enterprise Big 4 deployments. Lufthansa and Providence Healthcare Systems, customers of GroundWork, operate using both GroundWork and a closed source systems management products, allowing operators to continue using processes they are used to, while replacing the costs of licensed agents. When there is little functional difference between open and closed source options, integration frees financial resources to be used on additional initiatives.

The ramifications of this are clear: If enterprise open source product suppliers do not learn to co-exist with proprietary products, they will be relegated to the niche of small-shop and hobbyist deployments where such capabilities don’t matter.

What Does this Mean for the Current Status Quo?

The status quo of the enterprise systems-management software market for the last decade has resembled an 18th century mercantilist economy:

  • Dominated by the Big 4, or perhaps the Big 2 (HP OpenView and IBM Tivoli), operating as near-monopolistic actors
  • Customers have most likely paid higher fees because of implicit high barriers to entry for alternative suppliers

Open source systems management solutions have introduced free trade into this retrograde equation, which in the long run will bring benefit to the buyer and the market as a whole.

So what will happen next?

You will start to see open source systems management solutions, begin to seriously challenge closed source products in areas where they have a comparative advantage, such as systems and network monitoring. Similar to its role in the application server market, OSS will become a standard alternative to proprietary offerings, probably with one vendor emerging as the 800 lb gorilla.

With this, enterprise-sized customers will start implementing technology that is just as good or better than that offered by proprietary products. They will start experiencing a recurring value-add via subscriptions, services and support that will become part of the standard ROI analysis. In addition, hefty per-node license fees for management software will become indefensible, especially in slow economic years that require IT budget trimming.

Overall, its not that the presence of open source is dissipating, but rather that open source products are specializing in the functionality and services where they have a comparative advantage over their proprietary brothers. In the end, customers get the solutions they are looking for and gain from lower costs, customized solutions and a competitive market.

More by David Dennis

About GroundWork Open Source, Inc.

San Francisco-based GroundWork Open Source, Inc. offers open source network and systems management software, delivering enterprise-class network, system and application management solutions at lower cost than proprietary solutions. GroundWork's approach lets customers use diverse open source and proprietary technologies together under a unified interface, leveraging the advantages of open source while preserving existing investments in legacy management tools. The company is privately held, with investments from Canaan Partners, Mayfield Fund, JAFCO Ventures and SAP Ventures.