For the first ten years of its life, free software was largely a hacker's tool. All the early programs Emacs, GCC, Perl, Linux were written by coders for coders (usually themselves). It was the rapid uptake of the Internet by business in the mid-1990s that led to free software being used by companies, not just their employees.
The unplanned nature of this move online meant that computer departments were often asked to create a Web presence without being allocated extra funds. Free software was the obvious solution. The ready availability of GNU/Linux and Apache, whose first official release had appeared in December 1995, meant both were soon found in many companies, but generally unofficially. Software engineers knew it was easier simply to install the code than to go through formal approval processes that were bound to be skeptical of this new kind of software. The same was true for Samba, which allowed IT departments to add low-cost file and print servers to Windows networks.
At this stage, then, free software was on the periphery of companies, providing non-critical functions, and often invisibly as far as management was concerned. Gradually, though, word got out about the reliability and attractive price-performance characteristics of free software in general, and GNU/Linux in particular.
Similarly, software suppliers were discovering that their engineers were not only using free software but sometimes had even ported major proprietary software packages to GNU/Linux on their own initiative as happened with Software AG's Adabas D database, which shipped in 1996 as part of the Caldera Solutions CD. This fact, together with the growing use of GNU/Linux within companies, prompted the release in 1998 of official ports of the main enterprise-level databases: those from Oracle and Informix in July, and IBM's in December. It was a significant moment in the rise of open source in companies: free software was now countenanced officially, and started to play a mission-critical role.
At the same time, free software began to provide more complex business solutions through the deployment of what came to be termed the LAMP stack: GNU/Linux, Apache, MySQL and Perl/PHP/Python - the term LAMP was coined in 1998 by Michael Kunze in the German c't magazine. The stack represented a more sophisticated version of the approach based around the earlier Common Gateway Interface, which was used to interface Web servers with external applications like databases.
MySQL had first appeared in 1995. As well as representing an important breakthrough for open source application software in the enterprise, it also brought with it a new business model. In the beginning, the copyright for open source code had either been assigned to the Free Software Foundation to allow more effective enforcement of the GNU GPL, or remained with the various individual coders who had contributed. In the case of the MySQL code, though, it is the software house MySQL AB, which was created around the software, that owns all the copyrights.
Because of this, MySQL AB is able to employ a dual-licensing policy, offering its database under the GNU GPL or a commercial license. Some have seen this development as a threat to the core ethos of the open source world, because it raises the specter of a new, more subtle kind of vendor lock-in. Although the most popular, MySQL is by no means the only free database program: others include Firebird, Ingres and PostgreSQL.
The early years of the 21st century were ones of steady gains for free software within the enterprise. In the wake of the dotcom crash, which saw first-generation open source companies like Linuxcare, TurboLinux and VA Linux scaling back their operations dramatically, there were relatively few venture capitalists or IT start-ups that were willing to take a chance on new areas of free software. But corporate use of GNU/Linux in particular flourished, as the free operating system was increasingly used to save money by allowing companies to move from expensive proprietary hardware running Unix to commodity systems based on Intel processors.
One open source company that did appear during this time was Gluecode. It offered a commercial version of Apache Geronimo, the J2EE server project of the Apache Foundation. This was an important development, because it moved open source closer to the heart of the enterprise. Gluecode received a validation of sorts in 2005, when IBM bought the company, and added the open source product to its WebSphere Application Server line as a Community Edition.
IBM presumably preferred to cannibalize its own sales rather than see another increasingly-popular open source middleware company, JBoss, do the same. The JBoss project began in 1999, and, like MySQL, introduced a novel business approach to working with open source. It effectively commissions code for free software projects by hiring their top coders, thereby adding an element of commercial direction to the open source development process that was hitherto lacking. Also like MySQL, JBoss the company generally retains the copyright in the JBoss code. The JBoss way received its own vote of confidence when the company was acquired in April 2006 for $350 million by Red Hat, after being courted by Oracle, which has been on something of an open source spending spree.
The acquisition of Gluecode and JBoss, and Oracle's interest in the latter, firmly establishes middleware as the new hotspot for enterprise open source. Alongside IBM's WebSphere Application Server Community Edition and JBoss, there are several other free programs, including Enhydra, JOnAS and WSO2 Tungsten. Together, they represent a key piece in the creation of an open source enterprise stack, with GNU/Linux as the foundation.
It is here, rather than on the desktop, that free software's next big gains are likely to take place, and a subsequent feature will explore the surprising richness of the upper layers of the emerging open source enterprise stack, in areas such as systems management, customer relationship management, business intelligence, enterprise content management, enterprise resource planning and communications.
Glyn Moody writes about open source at opendotdotdot.
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