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Freeware phobia hits big companies

Free Apache software runs 50% of Web servers on the Internet   

September 1, 1998
Web posted at: 12:45 PM EDT

by Stewart Deck

(IDG) -- Andy Martin, chief technology officer at a young, Web-based business, has good reasons for using freeware. His free Apache Web server software is more reliable -- and nearly three times faster -- than the commercial product it replaced.

Harry M. Levy, executive vice president at a more traditional corporation, has just as many reasons for his freeware phobia. It's hard to tell the board of directors of a public company that you plan to bet the business on free software that "might blow away for lack of support," he said.

The contrasting viewpoints illustrate how freeware such as Apache and the Linux operating system is being adopted by start-ups in the electronic-commerce field, yet faces resistance from chief information officers at large corporations.

"There's a certain shyness about [freeware] in all but the most entrepreneurial companies, which still have the chutzpah to experiment like that," said Levy, who was promoted from CIO to executive vice president at The Men's Wearhouse, Inc., a Houston-based retailer.

"For traditional Fortune 500 corporate America, I don't think [Linux] is going to catch on real soon," said Mary Hubley, an analyst at Gartner Group, Inc. in Stamford, Conn. "They love Microsoft and the large vendors because they have the [product] support and it just feels good."

Some resistance may melt away as established vendors increasingly embrace the freeware concept, giving it more respectability. The mainstreaming of freeware is evident in the following recent announcements:

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  • In March, Netscape Communications Corp. decided to make the source code for its Navigator World Wide Web browser freely available.

  • In May, Corel Corp. said that it would make its WordPerfect office applications available on Linux.

  • In June, IBM said it will bundle the Apache Web server into its WebSphere application server and provide technical support for Apache. It's easy to see why: Apache software runs 50% of Web servers on the Internet.

  • In July, Informix Corp., Oracle Corp. and Computer Associates International, Inc. announced they would port versions of their databases to Linux.

The announcements placed a spotlight on freeware, which is software developed by a network of volunteer programmers who provide the source code free of charge. And the support of big-name vendors is starting to reverse the perception that freeware is a geeky cult phenomenon.

Asked if IBM's support for Apache gives freeware more credibility in the boardroom, Levy replied: "You bet it does."

Even so, the No. 1 concern of CIOs is how to get technical support for free software that isn't governed by a single vendor. With freeware, support is provided by a loose confederation of developers, Web sites and Usenet newsgroups.

Freeware advocates see that as a strength. When the source code is freely available, anyone is allowed to inspect it, tinker with it, debug it and share improvements via the Internet.

But that scares traditional CIOs. Bill Peterson, an analyst at International Data Corp. (IDC), wrote in a recent report, "There are [information systems] managers who won't even consider Linux because it is not backed by a known name."

Donald Morchower, senior vice president and CIO at Highmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Pittsburgh, said, "support is certainly a large issue to consider."

"When a CIO makes an [information technology] decision, they want support, not virtual support," said Andrew Allison, an independent industry analyst in Carmel, Calif.

But some users find the free advice and discussion groups on the Internet completely sufficient, and in some instances, superior to standard technical support.

Thomas Schenk, systems administration team leader at DejaNews, Inc., one of the Web's largest news providers, said he is a firm believer in support from Linux developers.

"We had been using another PC-based Unix from a commercial vendor and hit a bug," he recalled. "We contacted them for technical support and were basically told that we were not big enough to merit a fix in the time frame that we needed it." Schenk called the ability to contact the developers directly "a huge asset."

Web-based businesses say the button-down crowd's view that freeware is undependable and unsupported is an outdated stereotype. The real reason they're snapping up Apache and Linux is for their reliability.

Evan Lemonides, chief operating officer at MetroCommute, Inc. in New York, said freeware has become the heart of his operation. MetroCommute runs a Web site that tracks up-to-the-minute traffic jams for New York City commuters. Its Web servers receive close to 2 million hits per month and run entirely on Linux.

"We would have spent more to get a different operating system if we thought that there was a better one for what we do," Lemonides said. "For our purposes, Linux is ideal. We need to generate graphics very quickly -- our maps have to be generated on the fly -- and our data changes every minute."

Craig McLaughlin, chief technology officer at Privada, Inc. in San Jose, Calif., called Linux "the only choice" for his company's Internet privacy-assurance business because of its reliability and security features. By having open-source code, "any security flaws are found quickly by the thousands of eyes that look at it," he said.

McLaughlin also said the development community gives him the support he requires. "I'm biased against spending thousands of dollars on an operating system, then spending thousands more on a support contract and then spending hours on hold with someone's tech support," he said.

Having the open-source community work on the software helps eliminate bugs and makes sure it works on a wide variety of platforms. "You just get a tighter product," said Andy Martin, chief technology officer at Austin, Texas-based Garden Escape, Inc., which runs the online store.

Mark Menard, director of operations at CapitalNet Ltd., an Albany, N.Y.-based Internet service provider that has built most of its infrastructure on Linux, agreed. "You don't need an army of people with pagers waiting for it to go down," he said. "It just runs. It never drops."

No one knows how many large corporations actually use freeware, in part because some freeware comes in through backdoor channels -- under the radar of the CIO, according to the IDC report. Robert Young, CEO of Linux vendor Red Hat Software, Inc. in Research Triangle Park, N.C., claimed that Linux is being used in all of the Fortune 1,000 companies, though not necessarily for mission-critical applications.

Internetworking giant Cisco Systems, Inc. is one company that uses Linux to run its network file server, print server and print spooler. Officials at Caldera, Inc., a Linux vendor in Orem, Utah, said Cendant Corp., a 40,000-employee direct marketer and travel and real-estate franchiser based in Parsippany, N.J., also signed on recently as a Linux user. Cendant declined to comment.

Young said that some public companies are reluctant to acknowledge their use of open-source software. "They're worried that their shareholders might perceive they're taking chances," he said.

Assistant news editor Mitch Betts contributed to this report.

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