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The Trend To "Open Source" Software And What It Means For Businesses And Consumers

Feb 4 2014, 11:07am CST | by

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The Trend To "Open Source" Software And What It Means For Businesses And Consumers


Wikipedia defines “open-source” software as computer software with its source code made available and licensed with a license in which the copyright holder provides the rights to study, change and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose. Translated into English this just means it’s free to anyone who wants to download it.  Linux, Mozilla Firefox, and Google’s Android are open source operating systems and are available and easy to download even for computer illiterates like myself.

Some Review

Java is by orders of magnitude the most popular and versatile software on earth. There are over 10 million Java software developers in the world today writing software applications that run on desk top computers, lap tops, tablets, enterprise servers, and even cloud based platforms. Each of these devices can be enabled to run Java applications through the installation of the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) software. So to be clear, there is the programming language Java and then there is the software (the JVM) that actually runs those applications written in Java.

 “Write Once, Run Anywhere” (WORA)

An important and distinguishing feature that sets Java software apart as unique is the concept of WORA or “Write Once Run Anywhere”. It says that whatever operating system the application is running on, be it Windows, Linux, Solaris, the Mac OS, or the new open source rage Ubuntu that the Java application will be able to run. This is accomplished by the Java Virtual Machine that compiles the Java application files to certain types of processor chips (think Intel) and certain operating system types, like Microsoft Windows. Second, although the JVM is designed to handle Java-based applications it is also used on numerous other programming languages of weird nomenclature like Clojure, JRuby, Groovy, Scala, Kawa, Jython and many others. So a programmer can write one software application on any number of languages and it runs on a JVM which works on any operating system. Nothing else does that, period.

 Java was invented in 1991 by a team headed by James Gosling at Silicon Valley’s Sun Microsystems which was subsequently sold to Oracle Corp. in 2009. Java is clearly ubiquitous, and Oracle says downloads happen about 1 billion times per year making it by a large margin the world’s most popular download. For some more perspective about 3 billion mobile phones run Java as well.

Silicon Valley based Azul Systems has emerged as one of a few companies to seriously challenge the Oracle near monopoly on the Java Virtual Machine. Last fall I wrote about Azul Systems’ Zing, a super high performance Java Virtual Machine (JVM) with capability to exponentially increase the memory utilization of a typical Oracle JVM from 4-8 gigabytes or so to over 500 gigs or even 1,000 gigs or 1 terabyte. The occasional latency hiccup issue is also erased by this incredible platform. Zing is designed for specialized performance centric software like high frequency trading where time is measured in microseconds and low latency, response time consistency, and scalability are mission critical. (A microsecond is one millionth of a second). Claims engines in large insurance companies are another example that require the Zing scalability.

High volume e-commerce websites like Saksfifthavenue.com and Priceline.com are Azul customers. The evolution of giant database operations that store hundreds of millions or billions of data sets and need fast search and other analytics performed is another example. A majority of the top ten global investment banks operate on Zing. Zing is a breakthrough product and is not open source meaning customers pay a license fee. That said its performance capabilities far outstrip the necessities of many corporations, large or small. So revolutionary though it is, the worldwide potential customer base for the Zing JVM is probably in high end deployments only.

Conversely the installed base of servers running the Oracle JVM is estimated at over 9 million and overall there are an estimated 5.5 billion JVM enabled devices worldwide. While there are a few alternatives, for nearly two decades this lucrative market has been almost the exclusive purview of Oracle. The Oracle Java Virtual Machine is proprietary and NOT open source. But it is really not quite that simple. Oracle, like any software outfit, is always tinkering with and improving their JVM offering. Right now Oracle is on version 7 update number 51……and this particular “latest and greatest” version can be downloaded free….I did it and it took less than one minute.

The issue comes if your company, like the vast vast majority, runs on some older version of the Oracle JVM. In that case an ongoing license fee must be paid to Oracle. Given that JVM updates are as regular as a sunrise, virtually all enterprises end up stuck paying what most say are burdensome license fees and other costs for ongoing software customer support.

The Great New Alternative

Azul Systems has a new JVM offering with the potential to upset the balance of power in the gigantic Java marketplace. Zulu, as this new Java Virtual Machine is named, is analogue to the Oracle offering with one distinctive difference: it’s free. Yes, Zulu is completely “open source” and Azul will guarantee to provide customer support for whatever version downloaded for a minimum of ten years.

Think about what this means. So while Oracle is continually revising or adjusting which JVM variation it will support or discontinue support of, and forcing a business to pay license fees and/or to change software versions, Azul promises an enterprise at least ten years of operational continuity running on the same Zulu JVM platform……no matter how many Azul interim upgrades or software modifications. Azul has the confidence it can make enough revenue on the software customer support that it can give away the Zulu for free. Azul is making a bet on the razor blade model……..…..you give away the razors and sell the blades forever.

One Hurdle To Overcome

Business enterprises, big and small, are creatures of habit. Once technology systems are in place, often they are loathe to make changes. So though Zulu is free, and Azul represents the cutting edge in JVM technology, it still does not command the brand recognition of the iconic Oracle and the legendary Larry Ellison. And as Azul CEO Scott Sellers quipped “no one ever got fired for buying Oracle”. This perhaps is the great challenge to get Zulu adopted on a large scale basis. That said with Azul’s ten year service guarantee, Zulu offers much more flexibility that the Oracle JVM offering.

 

Trends And What This All Means

Open Source software is a trend that is picking up momentum. First it was the open source Linux, which shifted the tectonic plates and largely displaced fee based legacy operating systems like Unix, HP-UX, Solaris, even Windows felt a little pinch. Lately, in the “Big Data” space “Hadoop” is new “open-source” software that is already beginning to step on the toes of the big database vendors like IBM and Oracle. Incidentally, “Hadoop”, though not written in Java code runs seamlessly on all Java Virtual Machines. The amount of information now being stored is mind boggling and is measured in petabytes. Each petabyte represents 1,000 terabytes.  

As more and more business software applications are offered free or “open source”, a rapid migration to “open source” is occurring. Can it really be that software like Zulu and Hadoop are equal to or better than software that the world’s largest companies have been buying for millions annually from Oracle and IBM? As the inertia of the corporate mentality inexorably gives in to the “open source” revolution businesses may reap billions in annual savings.

Even the software customer support is getting less expensive. Besides getting Zulu free, Scott Sellers promises cheaper and better customer support that that offered for the Oracle JVM. “Open-source” customer support was first commercialized and popularized by Red Hat Inc. (RHT) which services the widely used Linux operating system. Funny enough, now everybody, including traditional commercial software vendors like IBM, Oracle, Hewlett Packard (HPQ), and even Microsoft (MSFT) are catering to “open source” needs and are offering heterogeneous support along with their closed operating environments. 

The Java Community

Wikipedia: “Open-source software is very often developed in a public collaborative manner. Open-source software is the most prominent example of open-source development and often compared to (technically defined) user-generated content or (legally defined) open-content movements. The Java Community Process (JCP), established in 1998, is a formalized mechanism that allows interested parties to develop standard technical specifications for Java technology. Anyone can become a JCP Member by filling a form available at the JCP website”.

In order improve upon existing Java Virtual Machine specifications, the proposed new JVM must pass over 70,000 specific tests known as the TCK, or Technology Compatibility Kit.  This translates to innovation without breaking compatibility. So creating the new Zulu is no small achievement. According to Mr. Sellers, there are over 10 million lines of code in the new Zulu JVM.

The Idea For Zulu

Ironically, the seeds for Zulu were planted when Azul entered into a partnership with stodgy old Microsoft (MSFT) to provide an “open source” solution for their cloud offering known as Windows Azure. Azure is in its infancy compared to Amazon’s (AMZN) cloud offering, Amazon Web Services (AWS), which is far and away number one in cloud infrastructure and is compatible with and encourages all types of software both “open source” and proprietary. So it was a much needed catch up move for Microsoft.

Conclusion

When all these factors are added up, businesses and consumers world-wide will ultimately benefit from the proliferation of “open source” in the form of lower prices for a plethora of products across many spectrums. A report by the Standish Group (from 2008) states that adoption of open-source software models has resulted in savings of about $60 billion per year to consumers.

Zulu is freely available now and is currently being installed for real time commercial use. With a potential market size in the many millions, by definition, it is more of a mainstream product than the high-end Zing offering. Margins on Zulu will be less than Zing so the question for Azul becomes can they achieve enough of critical mass of customers to make this a profitable venture. With sales growth of 700 percent in 2012, over 300 percent in 2013, and more triple digit growth projected for 2014, Azul Systems is not a company I would bet against.  

Source: Forbes

 

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