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Agile Computing Authors: Liz McMillan, Zakia Bouachraoui, Elizabeth White, Pat Romanski, Maria C. Horton

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The Disrupter: Google Enterprise Apps

Moving at the speed of business

According to study by the Burton Group, the next disruptive technology in the enterprise business solutions will come from the Google Enterprise Applications portal (Burton Group: The Disrupter: Google Enterprise Apps by Guy Creese, Senior Analyst, Collaboration and Content Strategies, March 19, 2007).

Global companies, as well as individual users, will be able to shop online a-la-carte style and choose the applications they need. Integration will be a thing of the past, as all of the applications will run on the same Google GWT platform. This is what makes software giants like Microsoft and SAP so worried about the future of enterprise software development. Everyone is afraid to miss the next big thing and is trying to capitalize on emerging trends. When enterprises do start leveraging their new technology and paradigms, large vendors want to be ready. Microsoft has made advances toward Yahoo! while SAP is investing heavily into portals. But Google is gaining steam, and other "traditional" software powerhouses are forced to play a catch-up game.
Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP are old-school companies based on a traditional, closed-core and proprietary technology. As with any new and disruptive technologies, industry giants seem to be all over the open source phenomena. However, this time it might be impossible for large vendors to adopt the new thinking and embrace it in order to capitalize on it and turn it around into the same old philosophy. While traditional vendors invest heavily into "embracing" open source, their essence remains the same: none of these companies will be willing to release their source, which contains millions of lines of legacy code that for many years has been dragged from one release to the next. They will also risk making their enterprise customers (who paid heftily for the product licenses) majorly upset. The open source philosophy and approach to the software overall is proving to be the next big thing, which will shake off older vendors.

A new cluster of startups is emerging in the open source arena that offers business applications based on common and expandable open source platforms. Google recently announced plans for the development of Google Enterprise portal and a new development framework on which such applications can be built - Google Web Toolkit (GWT). Some open source companies immediately took note of this and recognized the potential in partnering with Google on the open source front, and in delivering enterprise-grade applications under Google's umbrella. These companies are the future of enterprise solutions that one day, in the not-so-distant future, will dominate the market place.

Open for Business
Open source is not a new term and has been around for years. Companies like Red Hat, JBoss, and MySQL have been successful in providing open source back-end and middleware solutions and making money by providing services and support for their products. The benefit to the consumer has been realized in savings on license fees and the ability to maintain applications' infrastructure on their own. Most of the time, companies running their infrastructure on open source platforms have been more efficient with less downtime, even though it requires more technical expertise from the end customer.

In recent years, however, the open source movement concept has experienced tremendous growth and adoption in the enterprise. It expanded from middleware and databases to companies offering open source business applications. Examples are numerous: SugarCRM offers sales force solutions; Compiere offers customizable ERP business solutions; Alfresco offers content management solutions; and Queplix offers a wide range of open source solutions for the customer care industry.

Licenses, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Openness
Contrary to popular belief, the biggest benefit of open source is not that it is a "free-for-all" solution. While some solutions are indeed offered to the public for free with no strings attached, these solutions may bring limited value to the final consumer (since the developers working on them probably have full-time paying jobs that take priority over these side projects).

Many open source companies are trying to figure out how to combine the community aspect of open source with the need to make a profit. Some have been experimenting with numerous open source licenses, from BSD to GPL, to many variations in between. It's important here to recognize that perhaps the biggest benefit of open source is not that it's "free," but that it shows a customer what he or she is buying. When you purchase a closed-core proprietary solution, what you see is what you get. While you can estimate that the solution will do about 60-80% of what you need, you won't have any idea of what it is really capable of until you install it and run it for several months. Will it integrate with your other business systems? Will it synchronize with your billing, accounting, analytics, and knowledge management solutions? Will it be able to work with numerous databases? Will it talk to your middleware infrastructure? Will it be able to sustain successful upgrades of numerous components that it depends on? Will you be able to customize it and make sure that it stays on top of your constantly changing business? When you buy proprietary software, the answers to these questions are as "black box" as the software itself, no matter what the vendor is trying to make you believe.

But is the situation any different when you buy an open source solution? In order to make sure you can resolve these questions if you decide to go the open source route, it's important that your vendor can answer "yes" to the following key questions before you write a check:
• Are there any large corporations and enterprises that run your software to support their critical business functions? (Ask for references. Talking to actual users is the most reliable way to know how dependable, scalable, and robust the application really is.)
• Is your software based on standard enterprise technology (such as J2EE)?
• Is detailed technical information and documentation available?
• Is there a large community of developers that supports this application?
• Is there extensive training available?
• Does the open source vendor provide support for the solution? What are the support and maintenance structure and costs?
• Are new versions of software included with the support and maintenance?

Subject to many variations, licensing terms are particularly important when dealing with open source utilities - so be sure to study the licensing agreement and learn what kinds of things you are and are not allowed to do with the software you choose. Make sure that the license allows you to customize, support, and use the software internally without limitations, so you have the freedom to disassociate yourself from the vendor at any point in the future. After all, not being locked in with the vendor is one of the greatest benefits of open source software.

The Need for Speed
If you are looking to deploy an enterprise application - whether it's for customer care, content management, or a range of other capabilities - open source solutions should definitely be on your short list. A look at the industry shows that these solutions are quickly outpacing traditional software applications, offering significantly lower TCO and the ability to adapt (among many other benefits) - ultimately allowing your company to move at the speed of business.

The final question is: How fast do you want to go?

More Stories By Steven Yaskin

Steven Yaskin is CTO of Queplix Corporation, which offers a suite of software tools and professional services to help companies deliver customer care with contact centers, help desks, and eService. For more information, visit www.queplix.com.

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