Saturday, November 19, 2005

Media Coverage of Open Source Software

I am constantly reading technology magazines online. What I find most interesting about the coverage of open source software is how it all seems to be the same. If the magazine is about open source, it is always positive coverage, with nothing negative ever said, or rarely said. If the magazine is a more general publication then the coverage is always straining to be "fair", in that they always have to try to point out something negative in mostly positive coverage. Many times these statements are hackneyed phrases that are used over, and over and over. Some of the statements are statements that may have once been true, but aren't true anymore. Even analyst firms seem to be stuck in a time warp when open source is concerned. I think that the progress of open source projects is just too fast for the general media to keep up with.

I once participated in a research study about Linux, and the firm conducting the research had a scalability chart for operating systems that included the commercial UNIX's, Windows and Linux. They had Linux scaling to only four CPU's, and I pointed out in a conference call that Linux had surpassed four CPU scalability some time ago, and they were amazed. Then I pointed them at various benchmarks which were showing from 8 CPU's (an SAP benchmark) all the way to 64 CPU's, which was an SGI LINPACK benchmark. Shortly after our conference call there was also a 32 CPU TPC-C that had been published.

One of the questions the media seems intent on asking recently is the following:

Is open source software better?

I will tell you unequivocally, that it is better in all the aspects that really matter. What are those things that really matter? This can be quite subjective, but I believe that there are a number of aspects that everyone cares about, even if they haven't though about it in the way that I do.

First and foremost, open source software is of higher quality. What I mean by that is it has fewer bugs than equivalent commercial closed source products. This has been backed up many times now. The University of Wisconsin did a study entitled "Fuzz Revisited" that tested various UNIX operating system and Linux along with the GNU tools. What the did in the study is conduct testing called fuzz testing. This is when you throw random input at software and see how it reacts. To pass a test case, the software couldn't hang or crash. Each hang or crash was considered a test case failed. The results were pretty amazing. The best commercial closed source offering failed 20% of the tests, and the worst failed 45% of the tests. Linux and the GNU tools failed 9% and 6% respectively. That is from 55% to 87% fewer test failures! This study was done in 1995. Since then there have been other studies done, using static code analysis. Examples of these are the Reasoning studies, which compared the Linux TCP stack, MySQL database, etc. They also show very low defect rates compared to close source software. Here are some links to some of this information:

So this is one area where open source software is clearly better than their closed source competitors. Another aspect to look at is performance and scalability.

I have done many performance and scalability tests over the years, and open source software has always been very competitive. While I cannot give specifics for many of these tests, I can point at others that have talked publicly about their results. The web site switched from WebSphere to Tomcat some time ago (,4814,92583,00.html), and they stated that they achieved a substantial performance improvement on the same hardware. La Quinta switched from BEA Weblogic to JBoss (, and they have a testimonial on the web site that states they saw 30% better performance with lower CPU utilization running their application. So in these two examples we see not only competitive performance and scalability but superior to both commercial application servers.

The final aspects are service and support. I can tell, from personal experience, that companies like Red Hat, JBoss, etc., give much better support than any commercial ISV that I have ever been involved with. What's the reason for this? It is quite simple. The business model of these companies aligns completely with the customer's needs. They don't get subscription renewals if they don't give good support, where with closed source ISV's, you have to renew if you want to get any support at all (usually contractually mandated), whether it is good or not. They also got your money up front in the license fee, so they have less of an incentive to give good support. They also staff their support organizations with people that are much lower paid then developers of their products, which means you get much less knowledgeable help in general. They also only support you if you have a certified deployment, according do what they want to support. Open source companies will support you based on what your needs are, not theirs. Finally, if they don't give you good support, you usually have the option of going elsewhere for support, turning to the community at large for support, or supporting the software yourself, if you have the proper in-house skills. These factors all add up to superior service and support!

To wrap things up, we have seen that open source generally provides higher quality software (less bugs), is competitive, and many times, superior in performance and scalability, and provides better service and support. All of this, without the up front costs of license fees! Who thinks open source is not better?

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