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Free and easy?

Open-source software continues to penetrate today’s enterprises, with the majority using it in some capacity – but there appears to be a shift in usage. We are seeing a number of enterprises move towards a supported software model. This is not an indictment of open source, we have been told, but a sign of the challenges an enterprise faces without the availability of suitable support for mission-critical applications. This decision usually derives from management who understand that the risk of suffering downtime without the availability of support is unfathomable, renewing the focus on IT’s primary responsibility: supporting its users.

This information led us to commission a study to obtain insights from enterprise end-users at the director level and above. The key answer we sought concerned the motivation to add support to open source and the factors that would engage that discussion. We discovered an interesting mix of the expected and the surprising. 

Our 2013 Open-Source Software Use survey found that free and open-source software (FOSS) is prominent within businesses today, with 76 per cent of companies using it. It’s important to note that we only surveyed commercial entities, and then only more senior decision-makers. This was to accomplish two things: first, to receive a business owner’s view, and second, to take the discussion away from one of technical merit and to direct insight into the thought processes around business risks.

What we found surprising was the high number of respondents (75 per cent) who had experienced a problem with FOSS. Clearly, businesses are relying heavily on unsupported open-source solutions today, running the risk of using FOSS without the adequate support to call upon in their hour of need.

In our own business, Univa, we convert open-source users of Grid Engine, a distributed resource management software used across the globe for HPC and big data environments (a former Sun open source development project), to our binaries and support. Yet, the percentage willing to pay for support that we have experienced with Univa prospects is much higher than averages that have been published prior to our survey. Our FOSS survey supported this fact, with 64 per cent saying that they would pay for supported software if it solved their problems moving forward. We’ll cover some of the rationale a little later in this article. First, let’s lay out the rest of the survey findings.

The lack of enterprise-grade support was the largest problem enterprise FOSS users experienced in their company, with 27 per cent of respondents raising it as their top concern. Other troublesome issues include usability (24 per cent), maintenance (20 per cent), crashes (19 per cent), bugs (18 per cent), downtime (16 per cent), loss off productivity (16 per cent) and interoperability (16 per cent). For those companies willing to pay for better quality, the following were listed as the key reasons to do so:

•   Stability (25 per cent);

•   Enterprise-grade support (22 per cent);

•   Ease of use (20 per cent);

•   Extra functionality (18 per cent);

•   Bug reports/fixes (15 per cent);

•   Integrated solution (13 per cent);

•   Product upgrades (13 per cent); and

•   Predictable lifecycles (13 per cent).

The demand for stability and enterprise-grade support suggests that the comfort of reliability and quick access to know-how is the number one factor that leads to invest beyond open-source solutions. The key product development departments of a business where most mission-critical software resides – engineering and R&D – rely most heavily on FOSS (32 per cent).

This supports our experience. Univa’s software typically resides in the departments within large enterprises that drive product and service innovation such as engineering and R&D, which depend on expensive mission-critical applications. Whether that’s in an oil and gas company running reservoir analyses, a fabless semiconductor company trying to tape out a new design or an automotive manufacturer simulating the crash-test of a $200,000 car, the risk of using FOSS without support is connected directly to the top line of business revenue.

Our product is middleware that sits between the operating system and the application. Since much of our revenue comes from the engineering and R&D departments’ IT budgets, we can also draw a connection to the behaviour across the broader software stack. Our customers typically spend 10 to 20 times the amount on commercial application licenses that ‘require’ a supported operating system, such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux. It’s also common for application vendors to certify workload management systems and specific configurations. This is different to some areas of the HPC ecosystem, where applications are home-grown, so the risk and cost-benefit are not the same. Here, we continue to see unsupported users across the entire software stack.

While open source is for everyone, it’s not for everything without an immediate path to quality assurances (stability) and enterprise-grade support – particularly when you consider areas in the enterprise where mission-critical applications require both supported stacks and configurations. What becomes a concern is the business outcome in the event of a failure when the application vendor denies support due to an unsupported configuration. That denial of service could be catastrophic.

Sample was provided by uSamp, a premier provider of technology and survey respondents used to obtain consumer and business insights. This project was fielded from 14 March to 18 March 2013, collecting 128 completes from uSamp’s Whiteboard B2B panel. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

View the infographic of the full survey at


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