As I wrapped up a story last week on the emergence of a new breed of open-source applications and the startup companies looking to cash in on them, I finally tracked down a source I'd been trying to reach for weeks: Sara Garrison, Visa USA's senior VP of technology development for network and open systems. I was glad to get the interview, even though it was too late for the story ("Open-Source Exuberance"), but I approached our conversation with some trepidation. What if what she told me completely contradicted three weeks of reporting and writing?
I'd have two choices: beg my editors for one last rewrite, or tell her I was having a bad phone connection and re-schedule for sometime next year. Lucky for me, the conversation was enlightening without undermining the premise of my story. Sara agreed that software companies are crucial to the continued acceptance of open source. As well-written as a piece of code may be, it's not worth its weight in silicon to Visa if someone's not standing behind it. As Sara put it, "We're the world's largest payments provider; we can't be playing with toys in sandboxes."
Open-source applications must have acceptable support and predictable release schedules. Companies need to know that these applications can run in demanding environments without breaking and that support is only a phone call or mouse click away. "That's the single biggest driver," she added.
IBM, HP, Oracle, and other vendors were quick to recognize the potential for open source, Linux in particular. After the dot-com bubble, they swooped in with penguin-infused marketing campaigns. At the time, I thought their aggressiveness might dull some of Linux's luster, that each company would try to put its own stamp on the technology and possibly splinter it in the way they'd done with Unix a decade earlier.
Not the case. It's the open-source user base that has managed to maintain the upper hand. Protected by communal software-distribution licenses, open sourcers have managed to protect their work from being co-opted strictly for commercial purposes. That's as true for open-source business-intelligence, content-management, and CRM software as it is for Linux.
Now, following the path Red Hat blazed, a new wave of companies is chasing the market for services that support favorite open-source projects. Their emergence reflects the fact that open source has grown up, Sara said. MySQL AB, JBoss Inc., and a slew of startups are an extension of that. "Where these vendors play a key role is inspiring confidence that these open-source applications will be supported by a professional organization," she said.
Visa has been very careful in its use of open source. While its Web site relies on a variety of open-source utility and infrastructure software, for the company to consider testing an open-source application, it must meet a few criteria: Applications must adhere to open standards because Visa builds its Web site and Web services around open systems with interchangeable parts. (J2EE and Microsoft .Net form the foundation.) And Visa's legal department must vet all open-source licenses. "Open-source licensing is the one gotcha in all of this," Sara said. That's because programmers, not lawyers, wrote most licenses, something that makes companies uneasy.
What did I take away from the conversation? The growth of an open-source vendor community isn't a bad thing. When you're taking a chance on new software, it's nice to know someone will pick up the phone when there's a problem.
Bob Evans is on vacation and will return next week.
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